Tuesday, July 18, 2017

It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!

Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes.
Written by Tim Seeley & David Walker, with art by Fernando Dagnino & Sandra Molina.
Comic Book Review by Kerey McKenna.

Like a lot of moviegoers this past weekend, I went bananas for War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the rebooted Planet of the Apes series starring Andy Serkis as the leader of a tribe of sentient apes destined to take over the world and eclipse mankind.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this series of movies, the first installment being a sci-fi “mad science gone wrong” thriller and “animal revenge” porn and the last two installments a riff on post-apocalyptic survivalism, but with the narrative weight placed with non-humans as the ragtag group of survivors.

To honor the series I was going to review La Planète des Singes (Planet of the Monkeys), the French novel that inspired the original 1968 and 1970 Charlton Heston films, but...well that would just be a film to book comparison and I don’t think there is anything in the book that wasn’t done in those movies or even the Tim Burton-helmed remake.

But do you know who hasn’t made it into any of the Planet of the Apes movies?...TARZAN!

Yeah, Tarzan! If apes rule the planet...could Tarzan do one better and rule the apes?

This is one of those bonkers inter-continuity mash-ups that happen when comic book rights fall into the same publishing house and the writers and artists feel compelled to make their new toys play together.

I say “mash-up,” rather than “crossover,” because to me, a crossover is a rather straightforward side effect of a shared universe—like when two or more Marvel superhero vigilantes meet each other in NYC—or narratives with enough shared ground they might as well exist in the same universe—like when NBC’s police procedural Law & Order, based in NYC, found itself tangled up in a case leading to Baltimore, the jurisdiction of Homicide: Life on the Streets.

Mash-up implies you are taking characters, settings, and/or genres that don’t seem like a natural fit, banging them together, and seeing what you get. Take for example the most recent King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island, which took a giant monster movie and mashed it up with a Vietnam movie…and it worked!

But that’s a different ape and a different jungle. Getting back to Tarzan and Planet of the Apes...

Planet of the Apes posits that chimpanzees and the other non-human great apes might one day develop into their own society of urban dwelling intellectuals while humans revert to a feral state. Tarzan posits that a human removed from civilization would have to be feral and have to survive by wits as well as brawn, but the result would be something more than animal but different than “A Man.”

So how do we get Tarzan and the Apes together to settle the matter?

The jumping off point is the moment in the classic apes series when Charlton Heston’s character blows up the earth with a leftover doomsday weapon that was hidden Beneath the Planet of the Apes. That was Heston the actor using his clout in an attempt to ensure that there wouldn’t be any more of these silly movies. But the studio wanted more so they did the time warp and we got Escape from the Planet of the Apes. I will let the movie's original trailer speak for itself:

In our comic, instead of time traveling back to 1970’s America, two talking chimpanzees from the first movie, Cornelius and Zira, crash land their spaceship in Nineteenth Century Africa...arriving just in time to raise a human foundling child, Tarzan, as an adoptive brother to their own child Caesar.

While they’re in nurture mode, the chimpanzees from the future go about spreading their knowledge to the native apes: how to speak English, how to build really awesome tree forts. But the ascending apes soon come into conflict with colonialist invaders who want to capture them to use as slave labor. So we get some really awesome action scenes of Tarzan and Caesar fighting off great white hunters and slavers.

To embed Caesar and Tarzan in this war reveals parallels between the Tarzan narrative and the Planet narrative that go deeper than “they both have apes”. Both deal with the nature of “savagery” and “civilization,” and how little distance actually lies between the two. Our dual protagonists, Caesar and Tarzan, are both amalgams of savagery and civility. Their foes meanwhile, the human invaders, commit savage atrocities in the name of spreading “Civilization” to the wilderness.

Then things get really bizarre: the book embraces two of the strangest ideas of their respective franchises, the time travel of the Planet of the Apes movies and the Hollow Earth of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp novels. Any continuing ruminations and capacities for savagery or nobility in apes and humans are continually eclipsed by ever more outlandish sci-fi pulp action set pieces.

We find the apes’ time-traveling ship has ripped holes in the space-time continuum, allowing strange creatures to escape from Hollow Earth. So now we get to see Tarzan and Caesar fight DINOSAURS. A battle that is the first for the Apes series but actually not unheard of in Tarzan’s adventures.

So instead of continuing with a conflict that speaks to a primal theme in both works, we get this scene of savage pulp action. Not content to pick one conflict or central idea, the book keeps digging even further into the lore of both Edgar Rice Burroughs and the original Apes movies with time travel paradoxes and trips to the hollow earth and killer telepathic mutants. Two kinds of telepathic mutants to be specific, one type from each franchise. The book gets so cluttered that by its third act it is introducing new fantastical factions and locations faster than anything really gets a chance to make an impact.

By the end, the whole thing is a big pulpy mess...like a juice bar run by a dozen chimps. But on the one hand, that does sound kind of fun; there are times this book is definitely a fun read. And I can’t say with a straight face that the creators should have shown narrative restraint in such an august project as Tarzan on The Planet of the Apes. The creative team can be accused of excess but never of negligence. Even though the ever escalating action is narratively and thematically jumbled, the artwork is well-crafted and the action scenes strike a balance between a lot happening and keeping track of the action and characters.

The writers, while stronger in the earlier chapters of the series, do try valiantly to weave all this chaos back into the theme of “civilization vs. savagery.” But I think they had too many rings running in the circus to coherently make the point.

If you can appreciate the fun of trying to team these two series up, and you consider yourself a fan of the jungle pop genre or a completist for either franchise, then this might be worth a look. Tarzan fans can tell you about the times Tarzan fought Nazis; Apes fans can tell you about the time the Apes were defeated by a hip hop star from Boston. These are fan bases that are used to the bizarre. But even for them, I can promise that this series will stand out as something unique.

I can also promise that this isn’t the worst Planet of the Apes cash-in imaginable.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Climbing the Walls Part II: Other Web Slingers of Marvel

by Kerey McKenna.

Spiderman: Homecoming opened to a well-deserved first place at the box office last weekend. It's fun and I would certainly recommend it for some light summer entertainment.

As I noted in Part I of "Climbing the Walls," Peter Parker isn’t the only person to take on the great responsibility of donning a spider mask. Over the years, there have been female versions of the character (Jessica Drew: Spiderwoman, May Day Parker: Spider-Girl), Peter Parker clones (Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider), former adversaries turned to good (Doctor Otto Octavius: The Superior Spiderman), and even a Japanese Spiderman (Takuya Yamashiro: Supaidāman). In this part I wrap things up with two alternative spiders that are relatively new to the scene. Both have monthly comics still in print: Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen.

Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spiderman

In the early aughts Marvel created the “Ultimate line of comics” that would re-introduce flagship characters like Spiderman, the X-men, and the Avengers (re-dubbed the Ultimates) to a new, contemporary continuity less bogged down in decades of backstory. And because the Ultimate line wasn’t replacing the regular line and continuity, creative teams were encouraged to try new spins on classic characters in appearance, temperament, and origin.

Also, because there was greater creative liberty and the emphasis was on keeping the continuity streamlined (a losing battle, but they tried valiantly), death in the ultimate universe tended to be more permanent than in regular Marvel Books. So in 2011, Ultimate Spiderman Peter Parker was killed in action defending New York City.

Manhattan is apparently full of labs haphazardly irradiating spiders, because a new teen answers the call: Miles Morales. Of Afro-Caribbean American descent, Miles was able to put contemporary spin on life as a teen in metropolitan NYC.

Initially, the premise drew controversy from the portion of the fan base averse to change and willing to sacrifice at least two spider babies to preserve Spiderman as an eternal twentysomething. They were joined by culture commentators, many of whom hadn’t picked up a comic in years, or ever. The culture commentators assumed that a minority character taking up the mantle of a traditional white male protagonist is part of a sinister plot to do...something. Honestly that whole can of worms is probably a column in and of itself but suffice it to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with the “I’m not racist but...there can’t be a black spider-man” op-eds. The job for irrational hatred of Spiderman is filled quite ably by J. Jonah Jameson thank you very much...

The Ultimate Universe has run its course. Its role as the streamlined version of Marvel’s characters has been taken over by (more profitable) movie and TV projects. Yet despite the backlash from the culture critics, Miles has won over enough of the fan base that he is one of the few surviving legacies of Ultimate, long after it was discontinued.

Now that Miles occupies the same universe and NYC as a grown-up Peter Parker, Marvel might finally be able to strike a balance between teenage Spiderman stories and stories of a spiderman that is growing up and assuming more adult responsibilities. Previously Peter has been ping ponged between the two. I say let Peter Parker stay grown up (at least outside the movies) and leave the high school drama to Miles Morales and his new circle of friends, allies, and enemies.

Gwen Stacy: Spider-Gwen

Second only to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, the tragedy of Gwen Stacy weighs heavily on Peter Parker’s conscience. Daughter of police chief Stacy, Gwen was a close friend of Peter and a rival to Mary Jane Watson for his affections. The love triangle came to a sudden and tragic end when Spiderman’s enemy the Green Goblin held Gwen hostage on top of the George Washington Bridge, threw her off, and Spiderman was unable to rescue her.

This death hung over Spiderman and his franchise for decades. Comics have teased at Gwen Stacy clones, or long lost children and mysterious resurrections. When Sam Raimi brought Spiderman to the big screen, he sent chills down the spines of long term fans by placing Mary Jane in the same precarious standoff at the bridge. Although Spiderman 3 introduced Gwen to moviegoers, The Amazing Spider-Man reboot movies went through with her death, surprising almost no one, and carrying almost no narrative weight.

But what if the script was flipped? What if Gwen Stacy was the friendly neighborhood webslinger and her friend Peter Parker was the Martyr?

In the Spider-Gwen universe, it is teenage Gwen Stacy who is bitten by the radioactive spider that fateful day, becoming “The Amazing Spider-Woman,” and Peter Parker who dies as a result of his ties to her super-heroics. Originally created as a one-off side character for the Spider-verse event, Spider-Gwen became a fan favorite and has been given her own regular series and fairly regular visits back into the mainstream Marvel Universe.

I get a kick out of Spider-Gwen because it’s constantly playing with the Marvel universe. Beyond who wound up with spider powers, Spider-Gwen’s alternate world isn’t a simple gender flipped or “evil” version of the Marvel universe. Its zigs and zags between similarity and difference are constantly playing with the readers’ expectations. Instead of the protector of Hell’s Kitchen, blind lawyer Matt “Daredevil” Murdock is its crime lord, the Kingpin. Yet Foggy Nelson, whom Marvel audiences would know as Matt’s partner, is still the same character: an honest attorney. Frank Castle still seeks to punish criminals but does so as a loose-cannon cop instead of a vigilante loosing cannon fire into the streets.

And Gwen herself is given a distinct identity beyond “Peter’s girlfriend who died tragically.” She’s part of an all-girl rock band with Mary Jane Watson. Although she doesn’t have the hard science chops of Peter or Miles, growing up as the daughter of a cop has given her insight into investigative skills and police procedure. Gwen’s “active wear” and different color palette are a distinctive twist on the spider costume that seems to be resonating with fans better than May Day Parker’s (which was a contemporary 90’s Spiderman costume but “filled out” in certain places).


So that’s my list, far from exhaustive, of other characters to spin a web of any size or capture crooks just like flies. Congratulations to Tom Holland and the Homecoming Team, but if ten years down the road, the powers that be at Marvel, Disney, and Sony decide they need another reboot, maybe they should keep one of these versions in mind.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Note: all art used belongs to its respective owners.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Climbing the Walls: Other Web Slingers of Marvel

by Kerey McKenna.

Peter Parker has been swinging from web lines since 1962. With Spiderman: Homecoming, Tom Holland returns as our third big screen iteration of Peter. 2001’s Sam Raimi-helmed movie starring Tobey MaGuire helped launch the millennial superhero boom and James Garfield admirably tried to recharge the franchise in two films that failed to launch a Spider-centric universe for Sony.

But Peter Parker isn’t the only person to take on the great responsibility of donning a spider mask over the years, at least in the comics. Heck, back in 2014, Marvel even had a great big event comic called “The Spider-verse,” consisting of a crossover of the alternative versions of Peter Parker and other webslingers readers had seen pop up over the years; others were created especially for the event. Now, alternative versions of Peter Parker would be a whole article in and of itself and be full of entries like Zombie Peter Parker, Film Noir Peter Parker, Peter Porker the Spider-ham, and so on ad infinitum. But since Spiderman: Homecoming is already giving us the latest version of Peter Parker, I thought it would be fun to share with you some notable characters other than Peter Parker to spin webs. And I mean other than Peter Parker. No alternate universe doppelgangers.

Jessica Drew: Spiderwoman

Premiering in 1978, Spiderwoman was Marvel Comics attempt to stake a claim on the name “Spiderwoman” so other publishers couldn’t try to ride the coattails of its breakout character.

Feeling that female sidekicks of popular male characters had already been done to death over at DC with Supergirl, Batgirl, and Mary Marvel, the editors didn’t want this new character to be tied down to the Peter Parker Spiderman. Her costume is very distinct from his, her spider powers have a different origin, and instead of street crime in one city she tended to be a globetrotting espionage agent, even working with SHIELD to thwart the machinations of HYDRA (And for more about the history of Hydra and how they bent Captain America to their will, check out my post Captain America: Hail Who?)

Given no directive but to publish books every once in a while to protect the copyright, she benefited from a sort of benign neglect allowing some of Marvel’s greatest creators the narrative freedom to tell some really out there but exciting stories.

Takuya Yamashiro: Supaidāman

Supaidāman, or Japanese Spiderman, is an interesting example of cross-cultural exchange between the USA and Japan. Produced for Japanese television entirely for a Japanese market and sensibilities, it’s fascinating to see what was translated directly from the original American version and what was added for the adaption. His suit and iconic theme song translate very well. Although his secret identity is motorsport athlete Takuya Yamashiro instead of scientist/photojournalist Peter Parker, Takuya resembles Peter in his struggle with the complications of upholding the responsibilities of both his mild-mannered alter ego and his superhero persona.

However the series makes additions to the mythos that seem very out of place to an American viewer. Instead of the Sinister Six, Supaidaman’s main antagonist is the “Iron Cross Army,” and our hero has custom vehicles like a motorcycle, car, and giant robot (none of which really have spider iconography in their designs). Why does Supaidāman need a giant robot? To fight giant Godzilla-sized monsters of course. These are a lot of conventions of Japanese superheroes that the US didn’t become familiar with until footage from a long running series was harvested to create Power Rangers for the western market in the 90’s.

Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider

Okay, I said no alternate universe doppelgangers of Peter Parker. But I didn’t say anything about clones now, did I?

The Scarlet Spider was the product of a mid-90’s Spider-Man “Clone Saga” arc that got out of hand. In an earlier classic Spiderman tale, a mad scientist created a clone of Spiderman who battled Peter to a standstill before joining the side of the angels but seemingly perished when the scientist’s lab collapsed on itself. But what if the clone didn’t die?!

The Clone Saga posited that he survived and had Peter's memories implanted into him, and therefore Peter’s sense of responsibility to protect New York City. Creating the civilian identity Ben Reilly (naming himself after his beloved Uncle Ben and adopting his mother’s maiden name), he swung through Manhattan as “The Scarlet Spider.”

The original idea for the clone saga had a lot going for it, and the original plan for the endgame was that Ben Reilly would take up the mantle of Spiderman, allowing Peter Parker to retire and settle down with Mary Jane, who was pregnant with their child at the time. But when the concept started selling through the roof, the writers were given editorial mandates to keep stretching it out. Furthermore, a rotating creative team on the Spiderman books couldn’t seem to make up its mind if Ben would assume the title of Spider-man or not. Or if Ben Reilly was actually the original Peter Parker returning to take back his life from the well-meaning clone. The whole thing became a convoluted mess.

Eventually the clone saga came to an end with no major changes to the status quo. In fact, narratively the restoration of normalcy was quite brutal, with the clone dying and MJ miscarrying her child.

The Scarlet Spider costume is one of my favorite of the 90’s-style redesigns. Doing away with the intricate black webbing probably saved the artists a lot of time and I think if the 90’s style (hey give them a jacket or a hoodie) aesthetic is going to work on anyone it would be a “street level” superhero like Spiderman. I also believe Peter Parker’s first homemade suit in the films Captain America: Civil War and Spider-man: Homecoming owes a debt to the Scarlet Spider.

May “May Day” Parker: Spider-Girl

Okay, remember when I said Mary Jane Watson was pregnant with Spiderman’s child in the 90’s? Well what if the resolution to that hadn’t been a huge backpedal that just left everybody back at square one?!

Spider-Girl posits that the writers’ original intention won out and Spiderman retired from superheroics to settle down with Mary Jane and raise their daughter May “May Day” Parker, seemingly an average girl until she reaches sixteen and develops spider powers of her own. Against the initial wishes of her father, May takes up his web-spinners and becomes “The Amazing Spider-girl”

Unlike other properties that imagined the successors of their hero in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or Blade Runner-inspired urban dystopia like DC’s Batman Beyond or Marvel’s own Spiderman 2099, the Spider-Girl series wasn’t interested in making a cyberpunk reimagining of their character and didn’t try to visually distinguish the far-distant early 2010’s from the late 90’s. As I write this in 2017, it’s clear that the creators were quite forward-thinking not to assume we’d be dressing like the Jetsons.

Spider-Girl took the drama of the spider saga back to high school, this time through the lens of a character not driven by personal tragedy, but by the desire to uphold the family legacy. And it allowed the characters of Peter Parker and MJ to mature as people and take their marriage to a logical next step, something subsequent Spiderman creative teams were so afraid of they notoriously...ahem...HAD SPIDERMAN MAKE A DEAL WITH THE LITERAL DEVIL TO ERASE THE PARKER/WATSON MARRIAGE AND ANY RESULTING CHILDREN FROM CONTINUITY.

Doctor Otto Octavius: The Superior Spiderman

What Doctor Otto Octavius? As in Doctor Octopus? One of Spiderman’s most iconic enemies, how could he be Spiderman? Is this another crazy “what if?” story from a parallel universe or dream sequence?

Surprisingly, no. But the story is still pretty crazy. In 2013 Otto Octavius pulls off his greatest crime yet, a body swap, stealing Peter Parker’s body, memories, and identity and leaving Peter’s mind in his own elderly, decrepit, and dying form. Like a malicious Freaky Friday. But as the transfer becomes final, and Spiderman dies in Dr. Octopus’s body, something amazing happens: Otto, accessing Peter Parker’s memories, finally understands why Spiderman was always foiling his plans over the years. He decides that with his “Powers” must come the “Responsibility” to become the best Spiderman possible, a Superior Spiderman.

It’s a bonkers premise and eventually the status quo is restored but it was a fun ride while it lasted. Doctor Octopus's attempts are at turns reasonable (going back to school to get Peter a doctorate) and at other turns clearly the thinking of a megalomaniac mad scientist (creating a swarm of spider robot drones to keep constant surveillance on NYC).

The villain and hero body swap is a stock plot device for an episode in a sci-fi action adventure series, but the Superior Spider-man arc gave the premise much more than a single episode to explore some of the potential of the premise. What happens when a super villain tries to turn over a new leaf? Does Spiderman still work as a character if he’s an arrogant tech millionaire like Iron Man, or for that matter, a ruthless proactive vigilante like Batman?

Eventually the status quo was restored but not before Otto had burned some bridges and also, perhaps, opened some doors for Spiderman and Peter Parker to develop and mature. With his new doctorate and proof-of-concept that he can do more with his mechanical skills than keep his web shooters in working order, Peter founds a tech start up and finally gets out of the struggling photo-journalist rut. And he can put those resources to good use helping a rookie friendly neighborhood spiderman.

More about that in Part II.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.

Note: all art used belongs to its respective owners.