Thursday, February 25, 2010
I have to confess I was initially going to skip out on this review. I mean, really, what do you expect me to say? It's my favorite team of superheroes--The Justice League of America--battling their evil twins from a parallel universe. I mean come on, this is just a recipe for pure awesome. How could it go wrong? The answer is that it does, albeit only slightly. Stick with me and we'll talk about it.
The film opens with Lex Luthor(Chris Noth) and a brightly colored, clownish figure breaking into a secure facility. With seconds to spare (and a delaying action by his associate that costs him his life) Lex uses a piece of stolen technology to jump from his universe to that of an alternate reality, the universe of the Justice League. There he approaches the team for help. His world has been overrun by a group called the Crime Syndicate, a cabal of superhuman criminals who have banded together in an alliance of their five crime families to divvy up the entirety of their world. Beneath a facade of normalcy the Syndicate rules through intimidation and outright violence. Luthor, leader of that world's Justice League, is its sole survivor and needs the aid of our League in order to liberate his world.
Superman(Mark Harmon) is initially skeptical, but the thought of anyone in trouble is enough to sway him to aid Luthor. Batman(William Baldwin) flat-out rejects the notion; they've got enough on their plate on their own Earth, trying to act as a multi-dimensional police force isn't an idea he endorses. Gradually the majority of the League decide it's in the best interests of this other-Earth to come to their aid and join with Luthor, departing for the alternate reality.
Luthor's activities haven't gone unnoticed by the Crime Syndicate; his escape cost two of their members their lives and boss of bosses Ultraman(Brian Bloom) is not happy. Owlman (James Woods) conducts his own investigation whilst simultaneously proposing the division of the deceased bosses' territories. Superwoman (Gina Torres) considers the possibilities of profit on a multi-dimensional scale, while hoods like Power Ring (Nolan North in a dual role) and Johnny Quick(James Patrick Stuart) are about securing their territory and making a quick buck. The nihilistic Owlman keeps his own counsel, but it's clear as the movie progresses that he has his own agenda, a considerably dark one.
Of course, the plot is largely a framework upon which to hang the central premise of the entire flick: superheroes fighting evil versions of themselves. And it's here the film shines. Co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery bring some sick fight scenes to the piece, with everything from aerial acrobatics to brutal fist fights to accomplished martial arts moves and all points in between. Each hero/villain pairing gets their time to shine thanks to the capable pen of writer Dwayne McDuffie (a longtime comics writer as well as a producer of the original Justice League animated series), who works in a lot of subtle nods and in-jokes for the long-time fans while still keeping it fresh and new enough not to distance it from a more general audience. The character work here is all top notch; the Flash (Josh Keaton) is snarky and fun, Wonder Woman(Vanessa Marshall) gets some moments of epic badassery in the piece, mirrored nicely by Superwoman's own brand of superhumanly powerful insanity. Mark Harmon makes for a really fun Superman(complete with a slight country-boy twang to his speaking patterns) and Brian Bloom makes Ultraman a bit over the top, but it works for the ultimate supervillain in a world of supervillians. Hell, I'd be arrogant and over the top as all get-out if I knew I was king of the heap and had no moral barometer. Martian Manhunter(Jonathan Adams) gets a bit of development in this film as well, as he finds a potential love interest in the daughter of the American President of the other-Earth(called Earth-3 in the comics but never really provided a designation here).
The crown jewel of the piece however has got to be James Woods as Owlman. His portrayal of this character is one of an icy calm with just a tinge of complete and utter madness. Owlman is the Anti-Batman, which means his insanity is such that even the Joker would probably blanch. His plans are horrifying, but he pulls it off with such control--and even near-boredom--that you are at once creeped out and intrigued all at once. His scenes with Batman are incredible, though William Baldwin is at best capable as the Dark Knight. I really wish they'd gone with Kevin Conroy as the caped crusader, but Baldwin gets us where we need to go.
At 72 minutes the film is the longest of the DC Universe animated productions, and I hope that favorable reaction to the finished product will encourage the good people at Warner Brothers Animation to go flat-out for a proper 120-minute/2 hour feature. These films have been improving in quality by leaps and bounds with each release, and I hope they'll bring a greater scope and depth to them as time goes by and it's proven that the audience is hungry for more along these lines.
All this praise is warranted, but I did mention there was a bit of a problem I didn't notice with the film until a second viewing, namely in the character of Batman. The Dark Knight makes some choices in this film (one involving Owlman, the other with another character) that I found to be a bit reprehensible upon a second viewing. Yes, the members of the Crime Syndicate are no angels, but the Batman I've come to know over the years views life as pretty much sacrosanct. To take the life of anyone--even a psychotic criminal--is completely antithetical to the core concept of the character. Now it could be argued that 'this' Batman is a bit of a harsher fellow than the Batman I know, but still. . .Batman's reverence for life is such that he'd never put anyone in jeopardy, even his worst enemies. That's the sole reason the Joker is still breathing after everything he's done (and he's done plenty). Those moments almost took me out of the film, but they're far from a deal-breaker. Still, I wonder what prompted McDuffie to take the character in that direction.
Also included on the disk is the inaugural episode of a new project called DC Showcase; an Anthology-style series of animated shorts starring second or third-tier DC characters. Up first is The Spectre. Done in a washed out, pseudo-1970s grindhouse film style (which after watching Black Dynamite a week or so ago did not go unnoticed) the Spectre tells the tale of Jim Corrigan(Gary Cole) a detective working a homicide case. Of course, this being a DC feature Corrigan is far more than he appears. I won't spoil it for you, but the Spectre is the wrath of the unavenged dead, and yeah, wrath gets dished out in spades in this short. The nods towards horror classics of the '70s was not lost on this viewer, and the short was found to be incredibly fun. I can't wait to see the next feature on the docket, western gunfighter Jonah Hex. Recommended most highly.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
'He shrugged his shoulders. "I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content." ' -Robert E. Howard, 'Queen of the Black Coast'
Sunday, February 21, 2010
When I was a kid, I suffered a week of some pretty serious nightmares, bordering on the level of night terrors. My parents were baffled as to why; usually I was a pretty sound sleeper and had no problem getting to bed beyond the usual hemming and hawing of children everywhere. Later on it was discovered that I (a voracious reader taught to do so by loving parents and a steady regimen of books and fisher-price tapes) had been rummaging in my cousin's room and found a paperback novel. I'd read about a quarter of the way into the book before our visit had ended, but from that alone my mind conjured horrors that would make the 'Night on Bald Mountain' sequence from Fantasia look like the opening of The Care Bears. The book? The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
There's just something about a work that purports to be a true story that lowers our defenses, however slightly. As kids we don't doubt this in the least, and even sometimes knowing it's an okeydoke the fact that the material is presented to us as 'true' can snake past our cynicism and skepticism and find us in that little corner of our mind that still believes that-no matter how many times we check or how much science reassures us there isn't--monsters exist in the darkness when we turn the lights off. Monsters that will most surely grab our feet from beneath the bedsheets and yank us into the darker shadows, where there are things we cannot see with fang and claw and oh how we'll scream. . .
I'd heard some initial buzz about Paranormal Activity from the series of tubes that comprise the Internet, and having watched Jeremy Jahns' quite excellent review of the film I was most definitely intrigued to give it a try. I'd been a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project (whose television documentary lead-in Curse of the Blair Witch creeped the living hell out of me watching it one night on Space prior to seeing the actual film), as well as The Saint Francisville Experiment. There's something about the raw nature of the video footage that adds an air of reality to the creepy proceedings that take place, and even knowing that it's a story in a film you sometimes can't help but be drawn in.
Paranormal Activity purports to be the found footage of Micah(Micach Sloat), a young twenty-something in a serious relationship with his steady girlfriend Katie(Katie Featherston). Micah's bought a rather expensive new camera with night-filming capabilities and all sorts of fancy bells and whistles for the purpose of documenting some rather unique phenomena centred around Katie herself. Katie, we learn, has experienced odd events throughout her life, moments that defy a rational explanation. Micah, being a typical type-A personality go-to guy, thinks it'll be a fun project to tape some of the creepy stuff that happens around his girlfriend, perhaps even peddle it out to a television show. Katie is at best grudgingly tolerant of his desire to explore it, and initially wants a record if for no other reason than her own peace of mind, to assure herself that this is in fact happening to her. But it's one thing to actually just talk about it and another to have her boyfriend trailing her with a camera. You can see she's bemused at first, but uncomfortable.
True to form, the film starts with us getting to know Micah and Katie as just regular people, and here I think the film shines. The normalcy of the footage, the modest backdrop of the duplex apartment/housing unit they share, the tomfoolery by the pool in their modest backyard, it all works to lower the defenses that have been raised going into the film. We know this is a horror film, we know that things are going to get messed up, but even knowing the game and the formula you bond with the characters. Micah and Katie come off as actual people, people we might even know in our day to day life, and it's in the establishment of the characters as real that we find the increasing unreality of their situation all the more believable, reinforcing our suspension of disbelief for what's to come.
The couple leaves the camera on and running while they sleep, angled to look out over the bed and over their open bedroom door, with the merest hint of the hallway beyond and the main staircase. And we're rewarded watching the footage by the odd noise. A thump here, a sound that might well be a footstep there. It's creepy, but not too out of sorts. Then the door moves by itself. This to Micah is incredibly creepy stuff, and he wants to get more and more into it. Katie is getting more reluctant, and definitely doesn't want to explore it further, but Micah is confident that everything is well in hand and at the very least it'll make for some awesome footage of the ghost. That's what this is to him. Awesome footage.
Gradually, the events begin to escalate. Sounds get louder. Movement gets more pronounced. Shadows that shouldn't be are seen on the screen. The footage is grainy, seen via our looking through the camera at Micah's computer screen. This only adds to the feeling of veracity. Katie calls in a psychic to assist, and they discuss the nature of her personal haunting. The medium comes to the conclusion that Katie isn't dealing with a ghost, but a demon. Why this demon has been following her around he can't say, but he knows without doubt that this is beyond his capabilities. He provides Micah and Katie with the number of a demonologist he knows and advises them to contact him as soon as possible.
Micah, rather surprisingly, is the one reluctant to call in the demonologist and feels the psychic to be a quack. Which is intriguing in that he is the one who actively wishes to seek the ghost/demon out and document it's presence in their home. Katie advocates calling in the expert as soon as possible but Micah believes that they can handle it themselves. He buys a book of demonlogy and (in the tradition of all obstinate people everywhere) treats the issue as less of an active threat and more of a problem to be solved. He even gets a Ouija board, wanting to talk to the 'demon' and get a dialogue going with the creature. Katie flat out tells him not to buy one, making him swear not to do so, which Micah grudgingly accepts. Of course, he ends up borrowing one (nothing like that 'letter of the law' in relationships huh?) and attempts to get the demon talking. He continues to treat the manifestations as a problem, a diversion, an issue that he can deal with rationally and resolve all on his own.
Yeah, big mistake.
Things only get worse, and eventually the manifestations go from mischievous to threatening to outright physically harmful. The psychic is called in again after the demonologist is found to be out of town (they waited too late to contact him) and he can barely even make it through the door from all the Bad Vibes pressing in on him, actually fleeing the house. The film crescendos in it's creepiness in an ending that. . .all right, let me recreate the scene for you.
INTERIOR STACY'S APARTMENT, LIVING ROOM, NIGHT. THE ROOM IS DARK AS STACY AND HIS BROTHER RYAN WATCH PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
STACY(nervously, watching the finale): Uh, think I'll just duck into the kitchen for some more pop. . .(starts to rise, backpeddaling for the kitchen)
RYAN(reaches up, holding a two-litre bottle of diet pepsi in hand, nonchalant): Pop's right here.
STACY(freezes, voice hitching in fear): Oh you bastard. . .
Yeah. I was a little child. Four, five years old. Sailor suit optional.
While others have argued that this film is another case of Nothing Much Happening, I call that into question. To me Paranormal Activity starts you out in a very normal and friendly place: a couple's home. It's here that we see the comfort of a home be violated and ultimately destroyed, to the point where we're freaked out by the seemingly innocuous apartment all the time. This film got past my internal deflector screens and made me as nervous about my own bedroom as the patrons of Jaws must've been about the beach. The fact that the eponymous activity of the film is centered around Katie rather than the home neatly nips the usual 'well why don't they just leave the damned house' argument right in the bud. Writer/Director Oren Peli reminds you of all the reasons you used to fear the dark with a realisitc style that totally sets you up for the outlandish suckerpunches to come. The tension mounts impressively and steadily, accomplishing far more with a bang and a thump than a million Michael Bay produced remakes can with all the snap cuts and expensive CGI gore available. The characters, their situation, and the gradual breakdown of both into absolute disaster feels absolutely real, and had me suspending my disbelief all too easily.
The only gratingly false note I found in the picture was in the character of Micah. The guy knows what's happening, he knows it's getting worse, yet instead of going for help or doing anything actually useful he instead treats the demon first as a novelty, like poking at a surly house cat, then eventually as an abusive ex-boyfriend of Katie's calling it out as if--what--he's going to kick the crap out of it like Swayze with punks in Road House? But for this film to reach it's climax the occasional idiot move must be made and if the deus ex machina is heard revving from time to time it's quickly drowned out by the sudden yells and overall paranoid murmurings of myself and my brother. Definitely see this one with a friend, and see it with the lights off. Recommended.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
I was born in 1975 and spent my early years in rural Nova Scotia. As a result I sadly missed out on the grindhouse period of cinema, the period where everything was up for grabs and most films were anything but arty or pretentious in the least. Back then the goal was to put asses in seats, and if a film could transport you for two hours to a place you enjoyed so much the better. Blockbusters weren't filmed, they were the result of word of mouth and the adulation of the crowd rather than being expensive star vehicles. If a film was good, people heard about it and were drawn to the theater. But in the main it was mainly as disposable a venue of entertainment as the direct-to-DVD market is today. If it's released on schedule that's fine by the studio; if it happens to be embraced by the public at large that's an unexpected bonus.
While '70s cinema did indeed run the gamut from serious films to popcorn flicks and all points in between, to the true genre aficionado this is the age of two mighty giants: the Blaxploitation Films and the Kung-Fu Flicks. Individually these two genres were formidable; Blaxploitation gave us everything from biting social commentary (Sweet Sweetbacks's Badasssss Song) to empowered black heroes who took crap from no one and kicked ass, be they male (Shaft) or female (Foxy Brown). But when they came together in a single feature, the results could be intensely awesome (Black Belt Jones) or somewhat silly (Dolemite). The best films tended to be a mixture of both, and it's in this that Black Dynamite shines as both a subtle satire and a loving tribute.
Trying to explain the plot of Black Dynamite would be an exercise in futility, not due to any true depth per se, but simply because we've seen it all before; heroic demigod (Black Dynamite, played gut-bustingly straight by Michael Jai White) returns to his old neighborhood upon the death of his younger brother at the hands of the drug trade. BD is brought back into the fold of the CIA by O'Leary (Kevin Chapman), where he worked for the CIA, and whereupon he broke ranks with the CIA never to work with the CIA again(this film is never afraid to over-exposit to sometimes hilarious effect). With the aid of his old friend and ally Bullhorn (Byron Minns) and a strongarmed pimp snitch called Creamed Corn (Tommy Davidson), Black Dynamite works to rid the streets of drugs, violence, and kung-fu treachery, romancing the fine black activist/feminist Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) while he does so.
Directed by Scott Sanders and written by Sanders, White, and Minns, this film is amazingly fun. That's it's mandate, and it succeeds brilliantly in not only capturing the escapist feel of the '70s blaxploitation/kung-fu films, but also their incredible, incredible cheesiness. Lines are flubbed (or read complete with stage directions), the boom mike lowers into the shot to bump Black Dynamite in the head, actors in a fight scene are matched up toe to toe and one ticks the other off, only to be replaced by a lighter-skinned stunt double in the next shot. The film is at once two stories; the story of Black Dynamite the movie and the production of the film during the 1970s and all the inherent craziness therein. The film is cheesy, yes, but when it's good it's pretty damn amazing, as when Black Dynamite kicks ass with his kung-fu skills.
Cameo appearances abound, and some make for a good chuckle (such as Aresenio Hall's turn as Pimp Council leader Tasty Freeze) while others make you bust out laughing. Cedric Yarbrough all but steals the Pimp Council scene as Chocolate Giddy-Up, who had my friends and I in stitches. Some of the best cameos and reveals I will not dare spoil, but what I love about the film is it's struggle to find it's plot, so much so that the villain of the piece is consistently one-upped. We think it's one guy, but then the writer must have seen a kung-fu film the night previous and decides it's this guy, then no wait, it's this guy, in one of the most jaw-droppingly incredible scenes I've seen committed to celluloid.
Judging from his body of work (the film adaptation of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, a universal soldier sequel) I had no idea Michael Jai White was this funny or this sharp. He brings a humor to the role when he needs to but when Black Dynamite kicks ass White brings an intimidating physicality to the role, one that's mirror opposite can be seen in Minn's pretty damn pathetic 'kung-fu' as Bullhorn. Davidson as Creamed Corn is pretty funny as well, kind of a pimp C-3P0.
I know it feels a bit like a Mutual Appreciation Society in here, but do you know how incredibly good it feels to sit down with a film that states simply and plainly 'I'm here to entertain you, not beat you over the head with how Impressive I am'? And that's how I felt when the movie spun to an end in my DVD player: entertained. Black Dynamite is at once a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air, which in this film market of bloated blockbusters that offer nothing but expensive special effects budgets is something to seriously appreciate. Recommended.
Ps. Even the trailer is in on the joke, with it's 'cast credits'. This film is so damn fun.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Before anything else, I always wanted to be a superhero. So much so that in my youth I even attempted to be one. I dug up an old Superman Halloween costume and modified it to be the Amazing Awesomeguy (or something, I can't recall what my actual heroic nom de guerre would have been) and attempted to patrol my neighborhood. I even stored my super-suit in an old suitcase, cleverly concealed in a nearby vacant lot next to our house in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I think I held on to the idea for about a week, maybe a week and change before abandoning it mainly because:
A) Nothing really happened in my neighborhood
B) Being a superhero with no 'crime' to fight was actually pretty dull.
Still, that fantasy has endured even to this day, though I tend to explore through the (arguably) more healthy venues of roleplaying games like Green Ronin's Mutants & Masterminds or my own writing. The notion of actually dressing up in a gaudy outfit and going out to right wrongs is an appealing daydream. . .but the reality I expect would be far from the pat endings and epic fantasies of my favorite comics. No, for someone to actually consider going out and taking the law into his own hands they'd have to be more than a little messed up.
Defendor is the story of Arthur Poppington(Woody Harrelson), a mentally challenged construction worker who dons a costume (mainly a dark sweater with a duct-taped 'D' on his chest, a helmet with video camera and an elaborate VCR hookup) and--outfitted with a variety of little gimmicks including his grandfather's trench club--goes out into the night to fight crime on the mean streets of the city. Arthur meets with some moderate success at first, roughing up a vile john by the name of Chuck Dooney(Elias Koteas) and coming to the rescue of a young streetwalker named Kat(Kat Dennings). Through her we're informed of his crusade to find the arch-villain of Captain Industry, the murderer of his mother. The story is initially told in flashback at a psychiatric evaluation of Arthur by Dr. Park (Sandra Oh), wherein we gradually learn the full details of Arthur's rise and fall as the heroic Defendor.
Arthur is not a well man, and his initial escapades (while somewhat funny) are tinged with a kind of wincing foreknowledge that for all his luck he's eventually going to get in way over his head. Especially when Chuck turns out to be a crooked undercover cop in the pocket of the Serbian mob, whose boss wants the 'little fly' taken care of in as quick and final a manner as possible. Soon enough Arthur bites off far, far more than he can chew and eventually is run to ground and given a choice. Does he let it go, or does he take one last stand for what he feels is right?
Defendor is a dark film, but for all that it's still highly enjoyable. Writer/Director Peter Stebbings eases you into Arthur's world and you come to bond with him as a character. Woody Harrelson seems to be undergoing a kind of second renaissance these days and he does fine work in making Arthur highly likable. You know Arthur isn't well but you feel for his situation, you understand his plight. Kat Dennings plays Kat as pretty much another user in a long chain of users, but one whose humanity gradually surfaces thanks to Arthur's simple, sweet nature. Elias Koteas practically oozes sleaze during his screen time, and he receives a just reward for his scumbaggery. Stebbings manages the comic and the tragic with a sure hand, and you'll find yourself laughing even knowing the pain that's doubtless to come from 'Defendor's crusade for right. Michael Kelly also turns in a great performance as Paul Carter, Arthur's boss and friend who tries his best to look out for him.
There have been some online who have been comparing Defendor to The Dark Knight, even going so far as to declare it that film's polar opposite. There's some merit to that argument, but for me Defendor was more of a modern day version of Don Quixote. A dreamer who escapes into the world of his fantasies so deeply that they become all that sustain him, even compel him to go forth and try to live that dream. He fails, but even in failure he nevertheless serves as an inspiration to those in his community. Defendor isn't the actioner that the other film that purports to be about 'real people as superheroes' (Kick-Ass) looks to be, but I think it's a worthwhile film about pain, loss, and trying to be better than you are. Recommended.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Rereading the Spider-Girl trade for my review, a little notion kept tickling the back of my brain, that there was something else here that could be really, really cool. . .and I got a mental flash:
The Peter Parker Mysteries.
Think about it. Yes, Peter isn't an active superhero anymore but he's still a heroic character, more than capable of getting into all sorts of adventures. It'd be Castle meets Heroes, a fun little series of paperbacks in the tradition of the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker. He may have a prosthetic leg and walk with a cane but Peter Parker is no less a hero than his daughter May, and following him around on cases he's working to solve would be a hell of a lot of fun. Plus, the notion of an older hero dealing with being a father, getting older, and his body no longer capable of the superhuman derring-do of old (whilst still being pretty badass. . .imagine a group of thugs trying to jump Old Pete and him kicking their ass in much the same way as Old Bruce did in the pilot episode of Batman Beyond). I think it'd be sick awesome.
You listening Marvel? Million-dollar idea and I'm giving it to you. If you let me write it. ;p
Thursday, February 11, 2010
My friends and I indulge in a weekly ritual we've come to call the Comicbook Run. Basically it means meeting up mid-afternoon on a Sunday and tooling around Calgary, making a slow circuit of each of our favorite four-color haunts. If you've seen the movie Free Enterprise(and if you haven't shame on you, as it's a helluva fun flick), imagine the scene where the four guys are heading to Toys R Us and you've pretty much got our CBRs visualized. It's a chance to get together and geek out completely and it's oftentimes a much-needed stress release valve.
Unfortunately, it seems that I have come to settle into the role of the curmudgeonly bastard, the Dana Carvey/Grumpy Old Man character who often rails against things 'not bein' the way they used to be!' and 'back in my day we had gorillas with jetpacks and we liked it, by God!' sort of character. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a fun role to play and I enjoy venting my pent-up aggression to some of the. . .shall we say. . .less stellar aspects of the genre that've come down the pike lately (time bullets? Deals with the Devil? People getting ripped in half? Give me strength. . .).My brother recently made the crack that there are really only two things I like about mainstream superhero comics anymore:
1)They're out every month
2) They're in color.
Everything else seems to just be one more thorn in the cranky old Lion's paw, sure to get him roaring and bellyaching about this, that, and the other thing. Cue laugh track, and we're walking, we're walking. . .
So the question arises; Stacy you magnificent bull-god of a man, is there a superhero comic that you do like? One that you unequivocaly love? And more importantly, is it a book that I (being an unitiated reader curious about comics and wanting to dip my toe in the water) would have a hope in hell of comprehending? My answer, dearest reader, is yes. There is a book that I do love, and have loved for years without reservation or compunction. That book is Spider-Girl(now The Amazing Spider-Girl).
One of Marvel's strengths has been it's ability to play around with it's continuity (unlike certain other Distinguished Companies whose problems with continuity could fill volumes). A longtime favorite title in the Marvel line of comics is What If?, an anthology-style book in which stories can take place outside of continuity and answer famous questions about Marvel heroes (What If Captain America were thawed out of the ice in the '90s, What If The Hulk kept Banner's mind, What If Aunt May were the herald of Galactus(I'm not kidding)). In 1998 an issue of What If? was released that introduced the world to May 'Mayday' Parker, the daughter of the Spectacular Spider-Man. The rest, as they say, is history.
May is the daughter of Peter and Mary Jane Watson-Parker. Peter retired from his life as the Amazing Spider-Man after a final battle with his old enemy Norman Obsorn, the Green Goblin, a battle that left Peter battered and missing one leg and that (seemingly) cost Norman his life. The pair settled down in the Queens neighborhood they grew up in and raised their young daughter May as loving parents(Peter's a forensic scientist for the NYPD and Mary Jane later becomes a guidance counselor). Unfortunately, comicbook fate being what it is it isn't long before their daughter (an athletic lass who dominates the basketball courts) is suddenly making decidedly nimble leaps and bounds that are as clear a sign as any that the proportianate strength, speed, and agility of a spider has passed down the bloodline from father to daughter. Peter and Mary Jane come clean with May, and just in time too as Norman's grandson (and May's childhood playmate) Normie escapes from a mental institution and takes up the mantle of the Green Goblin determined to kill the entire Parker clan, starting with Peter. May, being Peter's daughter and well aware of the correlation between great power and great responsibility, dons one of her father's variant costumes and takes Normie down as the Spectacular Spider-Girl! The issue ends with May, Peter and Mary Jane burning the costume and web-shooters, leaving the past in the past and looking forward to a future as a united family. It was a great little story, easily one of the best the What If? title ever produced, and it was a cult hit after it's release.
This worked out well for Marvel as a whole, as they were looking for a largely continuity-baggage free title to kick off a line of books meant to go back into the mainstream market, rather than the direct market of staight-to-specialty stores (namely comic shops). The Spider-Girl concept (created by longtime Marvel Writer-Editor Tom DeFalco and artist Ron Frenz) was spun (no pun intended) into a line called MC2. The MC2 universe was the Marvel universe some years in the future, with most of the original heroes retired and newer, younger heirs apparent taking on the mantle for the next wave of pulse-pounding entertainment in the merry Marvel manner. Books like A-Next(the Avengers of this new era) J2(Zane Yama, the heroic son of the X-Men villain the Juggernaut), The Fantastic Five(the future's first family and heirs to Marvel's original fearsome foursome) and Spider-Girl rounded out the initial lineup with Wild Thing (the future daughter of Electra and Wolverine, because of course no book line or Marvel series can escape the wrath of GrrrSnktBub) coming along later in the line's run. MC2 was tailor made to sell in Wal-Marts or grocery stores, each book being largely complete in and of itself and handled by a single creative team (DeFalco wrote all the books, while various artists contributed). The line eventually failed (comics being a tough sell during the Age of Pokemon) but it was a noble experiment nonetheless. However, Spider-Girl sales still remained strong, so much so in fact that the book lasted for a record-breaking 100 issues, the longest run of any female Marvel superhero title to date. Why? Let's look into it.
The book was a combination of things: it featured the adventures of a strong, intelligent young woman who--while still being a teenager and caught up in the drama of high school life and the superheroic soap opera--was nevertheless an engaging character. You felt for May and her struggle and wanted her to succeed. Indeed her adventures with her supporting cast out of costume was often just as engaging as her exploits as the wisecracking webslinger of tomorrow.
Secondly, the book was something that most superhero books sadly are not anymore, and that's accessible. Marvel comics is the relative new kid on the block when it comes to the Big Two, but that was still 1963. That's 47 years of continuity, more or less. People like to read a thrilling adventure story, but they also don't want to feel like they have to do homework in order to understand who the characters are and what's going on. With Spider-Girl, everything you got was self-contained to that title. It was in the future, an 'alternate reality' and as such was largely fireproofed against being dragged into the latest crossover du jour. The book was about Spider-Man's daughter, she fought bad guys, that was the basic gist. Simple, clear and direct. It was a comicbook for people who'd like to read superhero comics but were afraid they'd need to devote a good year or two to playing catch-up. A reader of Spider-Girl could walk into the title knowing nothing more than what they'd seen in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film and feel absolutely at ease. Anything that needed to be explained usually was within the story as it was occuring, so the adventures never lost momentum.
Another aspect to the book is that it's kid-friendly, something else that most books sadly aren't these days. Spider-Girl exulted in action and adventure in a style that's largely been put to the side in favor of decompression and grittier storylines. This isn't a condemnation; it's a business strategy that plays into the aging of the comics reading audience from childhood to teens to twenties to thirties and beyond. But there's just something to be said for a book that you can read as a grownup and enjoy, and then be able to pass to a younger reader without concern. Nobody gets ripped in half in Spider-Girl; it's about as violent as the Indiana Jones movies or the Spider-Man cartoons of old.
Volume One: Legacy, details May's return to webslinging after an absence. Events compel her to don the webs again despite her parents disapproval, but she was raised too well to let people get hurt when she has the ability to help. The book also shines in it's depiction of May's inexperience and her efforts to deal with it; she's got a lot of heart but ultimately she realizes if she keeps charging in without a plan or proper training she's going to get badly hurt. She seeks out her 'uncle' Phil Urich, a former costumed hero in his own right (just which one is a fun little ironic twist) to help train her in dealing with her powers and abilities. May honors her father's wishes and desire not to get hurt, but at the same time she operates from a differing philosophy. Peter Parker was a hero because someone died. May is a hero because her father lived. Her decisive action saved her father's life, and she's determined to make sure that if she can help she will. This makes her an amazingly appealing character. No 'my parents are dead' uberbrooding need apply.
Now it's not all roses (and really, would it be a talk with me if I didn't get a little grumbly?); DeFalco's writing style will definitely take some getting used to if you're more familiar with contemporary fare. The dialogue sometimes veers into expressions of BOLD DELCARATIONS and DRAMA in very much the same kind of style of the classic comics of yore. Much like the old-school superhero comics, Spider-Girl is a drama, and sometimes that drama does come to bite one in the butt. Of course, it's a mild quibble and merely the grit that forms the pearl in my opinion. Ron Frenz (with Pat Oliffe) does some amazing artwork that's a blend of classic Spidey art influences like Ditko and Romita while giving it a life all it's own. The book looks good, and it's design as a manga-style digest volume means it's great for conserving shelf space and durable enough to give to a kid to read.
Spider-Girl's initial title ran for 100 issues before it shut down. . .then it came back as The Amazing Spider-Girl for 30 more. The character is now a regular feature on Marvel's web site as part of their digital comics initiative, but I encourage anyone who enjoys superheroes, fun comics, and books they want to share with younger readers to seek out Spider-Girl (or any of the MC2 books) at their local comicbook shops. Why not make a family Comicbook Run of your very own?