MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #30: HOWARD THE DUCK

Why a duck?

Howard the Duck is maybe the most unlikely superstar Marvel ever produced. His first appearance was in FEAR #19 (1973) in a story written by the late Steve Gerber and drawn by Val Mayerik and starring Man-Thing, a mindless swamp monster. Because Man-Thing couldn’t think, talk, and didn’t really have a face, he was constantly generating supporting characters. In one story, different realities were colliding with Man-Thing’s swamp. To indicate how far-reaching the collapse of these realities had become, in walked Howard, complaining of being trapped on a world of  “hairless apes.”

Although an obvious play on Donald Duck, Howard was also given a healthy dose of Humphrey Bogart. Seemingly killed off in his first story, Howard proved too popular with readers and soon reappeared in his own personal hell: Cleveland, Ohio. He met a beautiful redhead named Beverly Switzler, and despite the difference in species, even with the restrictions of the 1970s comics code, it was very clear that they were a couple. In fact, it may have been because of the unlikelihood of their pairing that the code missed the obvious subtext.

Howard was angry about the misfortune of ending up in our world and wanted to return home. He was an unusually powerless, reactive character, who would only fight when his anger got the better of him, and usually regretted it. He and Bev lived a very realistic hand-to-mouth existence, where scraping up enough money for a candy bar and cigar for Howard felt like victory.

Howard lost more often than he won, and when he did win it was usually tinged with loss and irony: an entire issue is devoted the “What do you do, where do you go, the night after you save the universe?” Stories parodied numerous pop cultural and comic book phenomenon, but at the center was Howard and Beverly’s relationship. Howard was unlucky, and his victory was just to survive.

Gerber’s stories were idiosyncratic, his voice- the voice of Howard- was impossible to reproduce (other writers after him tried). Most of the series was drawn by the great Gene Colan, who gave everything but Howard a photorealistic veneer, and Howard a cartoonish bounce.

Howard, as the covers of his comics proclaimed, was “trapped in a world he never made!” He was alienated, a loner, angry, sometimes taken advantage of, but found a home in the arms of someone he loved. Although mostly remembered by the general public as a bad movie (the first Marvel movie!), Howard existed in a corner of the Marvel Universe that looked very much like ours at time, but could only exist in comic books.

And he is my favorite Marvel Comics Character.

Tomorrow the entire cast of characters gathers to take a bow. This has been MIGHTY MARVEL MAY.

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #29: KITTY PRYDE (with LOCKHEED)

Although Spider-Man fought crime as a teenager, Kitty Pryde joined the X-Men at the young age of 13-and-a-half, and was already a prodigy and computer whiz when her mutant abilities kicked in. Her power is nothing all that formidable: she can walk through solid objects, but only for as long as she can hold her breath. While a great defensive ability, as superhero powers go, it’s not much help in the way of kicking people’s asses. But that’s not too important, because Kitty’s greatest strengths are her tenacity and her brain.

Created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne (who named her for an old friend of his), Kitty first appeared in X-MEN #129 in 1980, where she was almost recruited by Emma Frost for her rival (evil) Massachusetts Academy before Professor Xavier convinced her to come to his school instead. Under the code-name Sprite, she was the X-Men’s youngest member at the time. She became a little sister to many on the team and she developed a crush on teammate Colossus. Eventually he reciprocated.

Superheroines are often more popular for their physical attributes than their character, posed in ungainly “broke back” positions on covers to sell books to titillated adolescents. Kitty has always been a heroine first, smart, capable, and brave. The fact that she has a pet dragon from outer space doesn’t hurt, either. She grew up on the pages of the X-MEN, and it was  great to grow up alongside her and to have her as a role model.

(Edit: In an effort to beat the dreaded deadline doom last night, I uploaded pics of Lockheed with this temporary, unfinished wings. I’ve now updated the pics.)

I hope you’re down for tomorrow,  the final entry in MIGHTY MARVEL MAY.

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #28: BEN GRIMM/THE THING

The ever-lovin’, blue-eyed idol o’ millions, Benjamin J. Grimm.

Reed Richard, Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and Ben Grimm launched an experimental rocket into a cosmic ray storm and, crash-landing back on earth, were transformed into the superhuman Fantastic Four.  Reed, Sue, and Johnny gained the power to stretch like elastic, to turn invisible at will, and to become a “Human Torch,” respectively, but Ben… Ben was permanently distorted into a humanoid pile of orange rocks. The Thing.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (1961)was the beginning of what’s considered the Marvel Age of comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s great breakthrough was the concept of superheroes with human vulnerabilities and flaws, who fought and reconciled like a family. In the Marvel Universe there were super-powers, but they came at a cost. Prior to that, superheroes usually had secret identities, mortal alter-egos they could retreat to when their adventures were concluded. The Fantastic Four did not; Ben Grimm couldn’t. 

Always a tough Jewish guy from Brooklyn, Ben was now too tough for the small and fragile world around him. At home only with his surrogate family, Ben channeled his great strength into his adventures with the Fantastic Four. Reed, the greatest scientific mind of his generation, looked for a cure for Ben’s condition, but could never find one. Outwardly Ben put on a brave face, playing the same lovable lout he’d always been, waiting for the moment he can let lose and holler  “IT’S CLOBBERIN’ TIME!”

Hope you’ll pass through this way tomorrow for another installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY.

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #27: SPIDER-MAN

 

Poor Peter Parker. Orphaned as a boy and raised by his elderly aunt and uncle, he was a frail science geek who was bullied at school. When a freak accident involving a radioactive spider-bite granted him he proportionate strength, speed, and agility of a spider, he did what anyone would do: he went on television to get rich and famous.

The world had taught Peter the hard lesson that he should always look out for himself first, which is why he failed to stop an escaping robber, something well within his ability to do without much risk to himself. Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben paid the price for Peter’s arrogance when the robber shot and killed Ben that very night. After bringing the crook to justice Peter Parker- now and forever the Amazing Spider-Man- remembered the more important lesson Ben had taught him: with great power comes great responsibility.

That was the story Stan Lee and Steve Ditko told in fourteen pages in AMAZING FANTASY #15 in 1962. The story has changed very little in the retelling over the years, and that core guilt- that Peter could have helped and did not- has driven the character ever since.

Spider-Man was revolutionary for a number of reasons. He was a teenager, but not a sidekick, who called himself a man, as almost any almost-grown boy would do. He had problems, usually very serious ones, that usually came less from his adventures as Spider-Man as from his own poverty, need to care for his elderly Aunt May (the revelation that Peter was Spider-Man would, he feared, give her a fatal heart attack), and his own awkward adolescence. Now able to easily beat high school bully Flash Thompson, Peter needed to restrain himself and continue playing the meek bookworm he no longer was

But far from a dark, melancholy character, Spider-Man was exuberant as he swung over Manhattan and bounced  around his foes, wisecracking and attaching a note “Compliments of your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” to defeated criminals. It was as if being Spider-Man was the only time Peter could be who he really wanted to be without consequence.

Peter failed almost as often as he succeeded. His victories were usually temporary. He chose to be good when being selfish would be so much easier. Ditko’s design for Spider-Man is one of the most iconic in all of comics. His own masked face is his emblem, a face that could hide anyone, that could be any one of us.

Be here for tomorrow’s MIGHTY MARVEL MAY because it’s gonna rock.

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #26: PRINCE NAMOR, THE SUB-MARINER

They say we like people for their good qualities and love them for their flaws. There may be no Marvel character who better exemplifies this principle than Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Appearing in the very first Marvel comic, MARVEL COMICS #1, in a story written and drawn by a young Bill Everett. (Namor’s title, the Sub-Mariner, is pronounced mr-nr, as in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” as opposed to as in submarine.)

From the beginning, Namor was a contradictory, angry mess. The offspring  of a human sailor and an Atlantean mother, Namor was amphibious, with Caucasian skin tones (as opposed to his mother’s blue skin), pointed ears and elven eyebrows. He possessed superhuman strength and endurance, which made sense since he lived deep underwater and wore only tiny swim trunks, but he also had a feature unrelated to his human or Atlantean heritage: tiny wings on his ankles which allowed him to fly. It’s an entirely whimsical, Golden Age idea which makes no logical sense, even in a world where radioactive accidents grant more superpowers than they do cancer. But the strange detail made him master of land, sea, and air.

But there was no place Namor was truly at home. Although a prince by birthright, Atlantis considered him a half-breed, and the surface world wanted no part of him, either. So he was a belligerent brat, attacking Manhattan with tidal waves and monsters from the deep over perceived slights. When the US entered World War II in real life, Namor decided he hated the Axis most of all the airbreathers.

In the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revived the Sub-Mariner, initially as a villain, when the Human Torch found Namor living as an amnesiac vagrant in a flophouse. Although he hadn’t aged, years on dry land had erased his memory, but one good dip in the ocean set him back to his petulant, pompous self.

Constantly vacillating between mankind’s defender and its greatest foe, Namor is somehow nonetheless an engaging character.  Like a beloved drunk who gets violent when he’s had too much, Namor’s friends in the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the X-Men, all embrace him when he calms back down.

I depicted Namor with gills, which John Byrne introduced in his Namor series of the 1990s. He also eliminated the wings and suggested too long in either environment triggers Namor’s mood swings, which struck me as over-explanation. The Hulk is the repressed, raging id of  a bookworm scientist, unleashed with the force of an atomic bomb. Namor? He’s just moody.

I hope you’ll swing by for tomorrow’s installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY!

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #25: WOLVERINE

The short, hirsute, surly Canadian Wolverine is one of Marvel’s best-loved characters (and, sadly, their most over-exposed). He first appeared in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #180 in a cameo and fully in #181 in 1974, supposedly the result of a bet that writer Len Wein couldn’t write a phonetic Canadian accent in a comic book. Luckily for everyone, he didn’t try. Artist Herb Trimpe drew the issue, but John Romita designed the character’s distinctive costume and signature claws; three, foot-long blades that protrude from the back of Wolverine’s hands.

A few years later, the character was dusted off and added to The X-Men’s roster where his job for several years was to launch himself head-first into battle and be knocked unconscious. It was during writer Chris Claremont’s tenure on the book that Wolverine changed and became a richer, more interesting character. He took years to add details here and there: Wolverine’s vague backstory as a soldier and woodsman; his history with the Weapon X program which gave him his metal-laced bones and claws; his love of Japan and its culture. He was intriguing because, unlike most superheroes, we didn’t know his origin. If Claremont did, he kept it to himself. We encountered Wolverine as his friends did: a dangerous fighter and loyal friend, but otherwise, we knew next to nothing.

Of course comics are too thuddingly obvious to leave anything about any character a mystery, so eventually all the unspoiled wilderness of Wolverine’s past was filled with garbage. He went from an interesting enigma to someone whose every moment of existence has been chronicled and cross-referenced. Until nothing of interest is left.

Here’s what you need to know about Wolverine: he comes from Canada. He is a mutant whose superhuman healing and heightened senses attracted unknown parties (the Weapon X Program) to experiment upon him, lined his bones with metal and gave him claws. He spent time in Japan, a place he feels very at home. He’s a member of the X-Men who frequently travels the world on his own adventures, usually out of a sense of obligation to others.

He’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does isn’t very nice.

I depicted Wolverine, in civilian clothes, looking tired. Because I think he would be, don’t you?

Don’t miss tomorrow’s installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY- it’s sure to make a big splash!

MIGHTY MARVEL MAY #24: THE HULK

Doc Bruce Banner,
Belted by gamma rays,
Turned into the Hulk…

Stan Lee has said that the Hulk, co-created with artist Jack Kirby, is based on Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, the good man who becomes a monster, and also on Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster, the misbegotten, persecuted creature. Those influences are fairly evident. What is absent from all but the original versions of the Hulk are his Cold War origins. Doctor Bruce Banner was a meek, bookish man who used his genius to build weapons of mass destruction and, caught in the blast of one of his bombs, became one himself.

The Hulk is Banner’s alter-ego. When angered, Banner becomes a seven-foot, thousand-pound, musclebound, lime-green, simple-minded version of himself (in most versions: he originally changed at nightfall, was gray-skinned, and merely terse, not simple). As he grows angrier, he gets stronger,often proclaiming “Hulk is strongest one there is!” After the anger has faded, he reverts back to a scrawny Bruce Banner by the side of the road somewhere, his clothes in tatters, barely able to remember what he’s done.

In the 1980s, writer/artist Barry Windsor-Smith proposed a story which would reveal that Bruce Banner had been physically abused as a child. The revelation would suggest that the Hulk was not merely Banner’s repressed anger, but a physical manifestation of the anger of an abused child, to some degree explicating the Hulk’s childlike demeanor. Marvel ran a version of  the story, but without Windsor-Smith (and interesting account of the behind-the-scenes story of how Marvel passed and then ended up using the story anyway can be found here).

The Hulk’s adventures both permit us to worry for Dr. Banner, the victim of violence who perpetuates violence without meaning to, and vicariously enjoy the demolition when he transforms and bellows “HULK SMASH!”

I hope you’ll return for tomorrow’s installment of MIGHTY MARVEL MAY even if tomorrow’s installment isn’t very nice.