When I was younger, so much, much younger than today, Marvel published an epic called “Secret Empire.” It ran in Captain America for seven months back in 1974 and was a classic.
In 2017, not only was I much, much, much older, but Marvel ran another Secret Empire saga. This one ran even more months and made people with class sick.
Yes, that’s an over simplification and not completely accurate. There were many people who didn’t like this Secret Empire, so the odds are in favor of some of them having class. Still, while it’s true that there’s no accounting for taste, I just can’t make anyone liking this story add up. And it’s not because I have no taste for accounting.
The premise of Secret Empire boiled down to this; Captain America’s sworn enemy the Red Skull had a sentient Cosmic Cube, which identified as a little girl named Kobik, alter Cap’s memories so that he was now a sleeper agent for Hydra. Ultimately, Cap became the Supreme Hydra and he and Hydra took control of the United States, turning it into a fascist dictatorship.
Secret Empire had all the sensitivity and feeling of a zombie on novocaine. Marvel currently uses Hydra as a stand-in for Nazis, because Marvel comics and movies are sold globally and many countries have laws making it illegal to show swastikas or other symbols of the Third Reich. So for all intents and purposes other than the symbology, Hydra is the Nazis.
Captain America was the 1941 creation of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two Jewish men who saw what the Third Reich was doing to the Jews in Europe while prominent Englanders preached appeasement and America practiced isolationism. Simon and Kirby wanted to create a symbol who could, and literally did, punch Hitler in the face. To make Simon and Kirby’s symbol of freedom the head of a stand-in for the Third Reich is like driving with a ten-speed problematic transmission.
Secret Empire went on for twelve issues of its own comic, including the zero issue and the aftermath issue. But wait, there’s more. It also crossed over into something like fifty-five issues of other characters’ comics, oh and another forty-one aftermath issues. I think. I could have missed an issue or two along the way. In fact, I know I missed an issue or two along the way. Who could afford to buy all those comics?
Secret Empire ended when the real Captain America, who was inside Kobik’s mindscape, convinced her to fight back. She did. And with the help of the Winter Soldier, Kobik and the real Captain America escaped her mindscape into to the world. Then Cap beat up Hydra Cap and Kobik used her comic powers to restore the world to its natural state. Kind of a deus ex cubus.
During the course of Hydra’s rule over America it did many things including, and this is where my column comes into it, interning Inhumans, so that they couldn’t use their powers against Hydra. At the end of the story, something had to be done with those interred Inhumans. Fortunately, in Secret Empire #10, the newly-reinstated United States government did the right thing; it released the Inhumans. Unfortunately, when it did the right thing it also did something wrong; it released the Inhumans with strings attached.
Before the government gave an Inhuman his or her release, it asked them to give the government a release by signing a form which “indemnifie[d] the United States government for any harm or harassment you were the victim of” during the internment. It also told the Inhumans they could have a lawyer look over the form, but any Inhuman who wanted that would have to go to another line; implying that their release might be delayed in bureaucratic red tape. Most signed. Maybe all. The comic spent all of three panels on this questionable practice, so it didn’t give us actual numbers.
The thing is, the Inhumans had committed no crimes, made no threats, or done anything by which the United States could justify imprisoning them. So the government was sorta, kinda required to release them because of that pesky old Constitution we keep talking about here in “The Law Is a Ass.” Not releasing the Inhumans would have caused much a due about process.
So if the government was required to release the Inhumans – and it was by cases such as Ex parte Endo – which said the US government could not continue to inter a Japanese citizen who was loyal to the government – it wasn’t very nice of the government, if not downright illegal, to coerce the Inhumans to sign a release from liability before they could get a release from custody.
When the government released the Japanese citizens it had interred during World War II, I don’t think it required them to sign release forms. In fact, a few decades back a federal appeals court ruled that formerly interred Japanese had the right to sue the U.S. government in court even though the suits were brought outside of the statute of limitations window. That fact would strongly suggest the government didn’t require signed release forms, but I don’t know this for a fact. George Takei, who actually was interred, might know. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to ask him.
I do know that inmates who are released from prison after introducing evidence that they were actually innocent are not required or coerced into signing release forms before they are released. I know this because many of these individuals who are released for actual innocence, including one who was a former client of mine, sue the government for wrongful imprisonment. Frequently with success, including one who was a former client of mine. If prisoners who didn’t actually do anything wrong aren’t asked to sign release forms, than interned Inhumans who didn’t do anything wrong shouldn’t have been asked to do so either.
Or, to paraphrase the Bard – because who among us doesn’t paraphrase the Bard from time to time – the evil that men did to the Inhumans lives after them; the good Inhumans shouldn’t have been interred with their bones.
If a comics publisher falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound effect?
Marvel Comics has been facing growing dissatisfaction over their sundry practices (both alleged and real) regarding their minority characters, their massive event stunts, some questionable actions by sundry staffers and freelancers… even the less-than-beloved reception to their new Inhumans teevee series, which premiered last month. Long-time Marvel fans – and I’m one of them myself – have never seen Marvel receive the stinky end of the stick before; certainly, not like this.
If you were on Marvel’s staff in some marketing or promotion capacity, you might have looked at last weekend’s New York Comic Con as a great opportunity to shine a light on all the groovy new stuff the House of Idea has in its pipeline. Buff up the shine on the corporate engine, so to speak. After all, New York City is Marvel’s home turf and the Comic Con claims (perhaps correctly) that they attract more visitors than the annual San Diego cluster-kerfuffle. This magic opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.
Ahhh. Sadly, that didn’t work out so well.
First – and through no fault of their own – Marvel had to cancel the NYCC promotion for their new Netflix Punisher series. They even had star Jon Bernthal ready to entertain what was very, very likely to be a standing-room-only crowd. Unfortunately, Stephen Paddock decided to murder some five-dozen people in Las Vegas with a number of his 47 reimagined semi-automatics, and Marvel, like others in the entertainment business in a similar position, canceled the panel. For those who are unaware, The Punisher has been one of the most violent heroic fantasy characters since The Spider, back in the 1930s. It’s completely proper for Marvel to show its respect in this manner.
Still, it was a blow to their promotion campaign.
Almost immediately after that, Marvel found itself getting an overwhelming amount of criticism from just about every conceivable corner of our own personal Bizarro World for climbing into bed with Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest defense contractors. This bothered a lot of people, even though the campaign supposedly focused on Northrop Grumman’s aerospace activities.
Lots of folks – fans, retailers, comics professionals – pointed out that Marvel has spent a lot of time and energy bragging about how war profiteer Tony Stark abandoned his munitions business for moral reasons in their comic books and, now, their movies. If you conflate Northrop Grumman with Stark Industries (in all its names), you’re left with the reality that, unlike Stark, Northrop Grumman is all too real. In other words, they really make a lot of stuff that kills people. Sort of like Stephen Paddock, but without the profit incentive.
So Marvel killed that campaign, removed all presence from its online activities, and cancelled that NYCC panel as well. I feel their pain; nobody enjoys watching Daffy Duck get cheered on by the crickets.
Typically, one would think the only way Marvel can work its way out of their deep promotional hole is to produce better comic books. But, really, comic book sales are so low that the bad press exceeds the positive impact of better stories – even if anybodymreally knew what the general public considers “better comic books.” Besides, it takes a long time to produce comics stories – particularly when one has to consider the four-dimensional domino effect that comes along with being faithful to current continuity.
One would think that, 20 years from now, Spider-Man and the X-Men and the Hulk will still be around and all this would be on the level of a fart in a blizzard. I certainly hope that’s true, but being a Geek Culture historian, I am reminded that damn near everybody in America used to be quite familiar with The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, The Saint and Nick Carter… characters that have been revived frequently (and, often, bizarrely) but achieved little or no traction. It can happen to every commercial product. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to buy Burma Shave.
I hope this does not happen. I’ve been a comics fan since Eisenhower was president; I wouldn’t know what to do with my time.
Tomorrow I’m supposed to have what is called a nuclear stress test – checking on the old ticker – during which they introduce a nuclear particle into my blood stream and then will track it. According to comic book physics, this should result in my gaining a super-power or two. So I’ve been considering what power(s) I might get or want.
There’s a spectrum of possibilities. Spider-Man got his powers through radioactivity, as did the Hulk. The Fantastic Four got their powers through a form of radiation. In the back of my mind, I wonder if the radioactive particle might activate some recessive mutant gene or possibly Terrigen mists like the Inhumans to which I may have been unwittingly exposed.
Daredevil got hit by a truck and some radioactive isotope/bar clonked him on the head which obviously gave him his radar sense. The Atom got his powers from White Dwarf Star radiation. Superman’s powers come from the rays (radiation) of a yellow sun, but he loses them under a red sun.
So – what powers would I want? Flight is always a great one but there are problems. For example, why doesn’t Superman have bugs in his teeth? You drive a car down a highway and you’re going to wind up with bugs in the grill and bugs on the windshield. And big airplanes are often having collisions with birds; does Supes do that or does he dodge them? So flying is not as simple or cool as one might imagine.
Enhanced strength? I’d be the perennial bull in the china shop. How much would I destroy by accident? I’d have to get used to it and learn how to modulate it; shaking someone’s hand could cause them major bodily harm.
I’ve always had the theory that super-powers in some way should have a psychological component; the power somebody manifests should be tied in to who they are. So what powers would work for me?
I tend to be more cerebral than physical, so I think I would tilt more to the Professor X end of the scale. Mind powers. Or like Deadman, I’d have the ability to inhabit other people and take over their bodies and live their lives for a while. It’s sort of what I do as a writer; I go into other lives.
Eh, then you also have Dr. Sam Beckett on Quantum Leap. I thought he was kind of creepy. He’d “jump” into other people’s lives and be them for a while and then, when he leapt out, the real person would come back, aware that they had been possessed and dispossessed at the same time and they’d be stuck living with the changes Sam Beckett had made in their lives.
Green Lantern would be up my alley; manifesting whatever I can imagine through sheer force of will. That, too, is what I do as a writer. But that falls outside the parameters of the concept – it’s not radioactivity that gives GL his powers but the ring. Same thing with Batman; no radioactivity involved in his creation. Unless we want to suggest Bruce was bitten by a radioactive bat when he first fell into the bat cave as a boy. Hmmmmm.
Of course, I could also wind up with less useful powers such as being able to sniff out chocolate within a mile. Or with a gesture make meatballs and sauce fly out of my fingers. With my luck, that would be more likely.
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see. If I get something, I’ll let you know next week. Unless, of course, I need to preserve my secret identity. If you hear nothing further from me on the subject, you’ll know why.
As the creator of so many great super-heroes would say – Excelsior!
JC: Alters is a passion project of yours that you’ve wanted to pursue for over a decade. Could you talk about the genesis of the project and how it’s changed since its original conception?
PJ: Alters was conceived as a way to tell stories about “superheroes with disadvantages” when I was writing more often for DC and Marvel. I thought that would be a tremendous concept because we’d have people dealing with certain problems – at the time I was slightly more focused on things like physical disabilities – and they’d also have a sort of “super-advantage.” I thought that would be very fertile ground for interesting stories that were in my personal wheelhouse as a writer – very much about characterization and less about powers. Both DC and Marvel always expressed an interest but it’s tough to get new characters off the ground so it never got picked up.
Over time I realized just how many stories there were to be told if I expanded a little more and dealt with different kinds of disadvantage. For example, I fractured my neck playing soccer years ago and have written many times about how hard that period of time was for me. I was indestructible right up until I got hurt, and then I dealt with post-concussion syndrome and very debilitating vertigo. So I am going to do a story about one of our Alters who will be stricken with vertigo every time their power manifests because that is interesting to me. I have stories about a homeless character, a person dealing with PTSD, a person who is bipolar, a person who is dealing with a form of superhero Alzheimer’s. The list goes on.
Despite the opening arc revolving around Chalice, our book is not intended to be the LGBT comic. It’s a comic that has a prominent trans character who will always be a focal point. Why? Because she kicks ass, and her story is interesting. I happen to think she’s going to be a very popular character because she seemed to have a good voice from the first time I wrote her into a script. We shall see how people react to her.
JC: You’ve stated before how diversity is important to you in terms of comic creators as well as their creations. As far as the creative team behind Alters goes, how involved were you in putting the team together or having input on how the team would be shaped?
PJ: I had a lot of input. This decision was guided in part by the initial loading screen in the video game Assassin’s Creed. They state that the game is developed by a team of many differing faiths and beliefs, and I loved that sentiment. I wanted our book to be created by a group of differing ages, genders and gender identities, ethnic backgrounds, you-name-it. With AfterShock, it was not something I had to fight for – they believed in that vision for the project immediately. But remember: this is a book that deals with many types of people so the diversity in our creative team is never going to cover the diversity of the characters.
JC: Though Chalice is a central character, we do know of at least a couple of other Atlers in the series have been mentioned. Could you describe to us the format of these stories? Will this be more of a team book or a shifting narrative?
PJ: I suppose “team book” is a good enough description. I’d probably compare it to the style of the Inhumans, which I wrote for Marvel in the late 90’s. Inhumans was a 12-issue maxi-series in which I’d highlight each character as the story unfolded. In Alters, we will sometimes tell single issue stories about one character or another. We may focus for another character for five issues or so. I happen to think Chalice will always be prominent but then again, so will a few other early characters. One is called Octavian – he’s able to access every portion of his brain, so he’s super-hyper-intelligent. He’ll be around for the duration, too.
We’ll meet new characters as new Alters come into being. There’s a lot of ground to cover, not to mention a number of villains.
JC: Was the idea always to have Chalice as the first character to be highlighted in the series once it got picked up by Aftershock? What ultimately guided that decision?
PJ: Well, I think so, yes. I think Chalice is very intriguing as a character because she has a compelling back story. We have a specific situation in mind for her that creates a sort of “ticking clock” tension from the first moment – she is transitioning but dealing with a tough family situation and is really struggling with how to tell her family. The family are beginning to see changes in her but as they see it, she is the middle brother of three. It’s going to be difficult. And just as she struggles with that transition, she discovers she is a powerful Alter and that changes everything.
JC: Alters, and specifically Chalice, have gotten attention in media outlets including The New York Times and CBS News. What has the reception been towards Alters so far? How does this kind of media attention around a character like Chalice make you feel about the future of comics and expanding diversity in the medium?
PJ: The reaction has, for the most part, been very positive. I think the media are going to probably concentrate on the trans character because transgender has become a popular topic of late. But at the risk of repeating myself, Alters is a comic about many different people who are dealing with disadvantage, whether it be disability or marginalization. I’ve stated this clearly in every interview I have conducted. Chalice happens to be a central character and is featured in the first arc. She’s not the only character in the book. Now with that being said, I’m hopeful that the recent highlighting of transgender in the media will prove to be a positive thing, even if some aspects of the portrayals are negative. Every time we have a dialogue in our society, it helps to effect change. So if Alters simply adds to the dialogue, then that is a small positive.
JC: When creating and ultimately writing Chalice, how did you go about preparing for that? What kind of research did you do?
PJ: I make sure each script is read by at least three trans people who are helping me as consultants. I’m learning that there’s such complexity here that it’s going to take me a long time to really cover things in depth. And of course, people have very different experiences. There is no one way to write a character like Chalice – I can only try to be diligent in my research, and try not to write the obvious. I try not to take too much creative license, and to pay attention when people tell me that my character is doing something unrealistic. Remember, too, that our colorist Tamra Bonvillain is trans. She’s been really helpful, and I’m grateful that she understands I may or may not want the character to do certain things that drive the story. For example, it seems less likely in the scheme of things that a trans person might begin hormone therapy without first alerting their family. But I felt this conceit would help propel the story forward, and while it is unlikely it is at least conceivable (more on this below). I think it is really important that I concentrate on “story first.”
That is the common denominator of every single successful project I’ve ever been involved in. Someone recently told me that I must be a crusader in this endeavor, that by choosing to write about a trans character I have no choice. Well, I happen to disagree. My job is to tell a compelling story and by doing so, the crusade happens organically. If our book becomes preachy or out of touch, we’ll have failed. In order for our characters to feel rounded, they must not know everything, and they must sometimes make mistakes.
JC: In a book like Alters that will have characters of different backgrounds throughout, is a character like Chalice meant more to introduce the idea of a trans character to a cis comic audience that isn’t familiar with someone who is trans or to serve as a character that a queer and specifically trans audience can relate to?
The annoying answer here is “neither, and a bit of both.” As I stated above, my job is to try and write interesting stories about interesting characters. There is no perfect approach. If I write a treatise on my research about trans people then I might as well create a documentary. If Chalice is a kick ass character – and believe me, she is quite strong and powerful in our series so far – then we have a good book on our hands. Having written her, I like her. She’s trying to manage three lives. She has challenges. She’s not perfect but she’s pretty damned cool, and she has a strong will to succeed. She has compassion, especially for her less-than-perfect family. And she sees herself as a defender of persecuted Alters. So she’s more like Spider-Man or Wolverine, and less about some statement I have to make on transgender.
JC: The hook of “a young woman who can only really be herself…whenever she is not herself,” can lend itself to the tragic queer trope, where a character’s tragedy is directly caused by or linked to their queerness, and specifically their transness in this case. Do you feel that is part of Chalice’s story? As her creator, what does define her as a character?
PJ: Okay, so… here I feel I have to take issue with your previous article a little bit. Your description of me as a “well-meaning cis ally” is intended to demonstrate that I don’t understand what I’m writing about, or that we are clearly going to bumble our way through this series with little to no idea of what we are doing. I did not write this book in an ill-considered way. I felt in your article you made this assumption, and glossed over the details because they did not fit your premise. I’m a writer trying to write good stories – that is the be all and end all of it.
Here are a few things that we are not: we are not trying to be crusaders for the trans community. We are, however, featuring a trans character as the focus of our series. We are not inattentive to the difficulties faced by the trans community. But neither are we going to create a tool to educate people about transgender. Instead, by creating a cool, interesting premise (people dealing with disadvantage and hyper-advantage), we create a product that anyone can gravitate to. And if someone learns about or finds a new perspective on the subject of transgender, then that will be awesome. Some trans people have written to me to express their excitement about Chalice. Some have written to me to express their concerns, and I have tried my best to address those concerns and allay their fears. No story in history has ever been perfect, and we don’t expect to be. I readily acknowledge that Alters will never be able to mirror any individual’s personal experience. I hope the readers acknowledge that also.
So to answer your question directly: that particular hook occurs because of a story point, not some ill-advised tagline. Her “transness” does not make her tragic. Her family situation creates an issue which drives the story. Charlie, Chalice’s alter ego, is struggling with self-imposed pressure to keep her family unit intact. Her older brother, Teddy, is stricken with cerebral palsy and she worries that her transition will create added pressure on her parents. But she also knows that this is her time – that she must become outwardly who she really is. So she has begun her hormone therapy in secret, all the while knowing that puts her on the clock, so to speak. This may not be the perfect decision. It’s the one she has made, and she’s going to deal with the ramifications. And right in the middle of this, she suddenly becomes an Alter and must deal with a second type of transition. One may argue that this is outlandish, or unrealistic, or whatever. Newsflash: every superhero ever created is outlandish and unrealistic. So we’re in good company there. :)
JC: Chalice’s story appears to be linked to her transitioning and while this is happening, coincidence or not, she is gaining great power. Other stories in different media as well as in the news have used transitioning as shock value and to exploit the trans community for the purpose of entertainment and to feed an inappropriate curiosity. What makes Chalice’s story different?
PJ: I think part of the answer to this is covered above. I certainly understand your point, and have found some of the coverage appalling. Of course, the coverage of the U.S. election/Brexit/terrorism and just about everything else these days is equally appalling. I’m not going to agree that we are somehow taking advantage of trans people simply by writing a character who is trans, especially because we have other characters dealing with different issues and I haven’t heard you complain about us addressing bipolar disorder or the issues facing someone who is quadriplegic. Every single character in our book is presented for the purpose of entertainment, Chalice included. I am in the business of entertainment. But I happen to be a research fiend, and I’m always going to be worried that a trans reader will find my character unrealistic. I feel the same way when I am writing detective fiction – I hope that actual detectives would find my stories plausible, and I try to research them that way. I will take the same approach with our bipolar character, our homeless character, our PTSD characters and so on…
I hope what makes us different from those who would try to exploit the trans community is that we’re focused on story first, and have only a minor secondary agenda in terms of shining a light on various people who are dealing with disadvantage in our society. I think the diversity of our creative team helps. And I’d like to make it quite clear before anyone tries to find fault here that we are absolutely not equating transgender with, say, disability. Our series addresses people who are dealing with disadvantage. Being marginalized by society, misunderstood, bullied, harassed and exploited by the media certainly qualifies for being at a disadvantage. Other characters will have obvious physical disadvantages. Others may have less obvious disadvantages (such as the character with vertigo).
And this leads me to the other issue I had with your previous article – the complaint that this is yet another view of transgender through a cis lens, as if I am disqualified from writing a trans character. You casually mentioned that we do have a core team member who is trans but “that’s not a position with creative control in a narrative sense.” That is an assumption on your part. You don’t know Tamra’s input, so you can’t make that assumption. Now, we each have our jobs on the creative team and it’s not as though I have Leila or Tamra’s artistic expertise. And while you happen to be partly correct – as the writer I am the initial creator of the story – I happen to be a very collaborative writer, and always have been. It has stood me in good stead over the years I have been working in this industry. I invite input, and truly believe that comics are a collaborative medium.
To address the point: where would we be if we were forced to write only what we are? We’d be without Othello, for one thing because Shakespeare was hardly a black, Muslim dude from Venice. I would be forbidden to write people from different ethnic backgrounds than my own, and I would never be able to write a female character. The argument that this series must have a requisite trans writer is specious and absurd: I hope that trans writers create tons of material that will hit the mainstream. I hope a trans creator makes the next popular superhero character, and that no one gives a royal shit that they are trans or otherwise, as it should be. My audience is anyone who wants to read the book. If they happen to be trans I hope they like Alters, and feel we have done a halfway decent job with the trans character, especially.
I’m not one to pay lip service to things – I do understand your concerns and any concerns of the LGBT community who are worried that Chalice is being created in part by some middle-aged straight white guy. I hope (and believe) that we are doing our best to address those concerns. The work should be judged for what it is, not pre-judged for who is creating it.
JC: I want to thank you again for talking with me about your new comic, Alters, being published by Aftershock Comics starting September 7th. What’s the best way for people to follow the release of Alters, spread the word, and discuss the comic?
PJ: My pleasure, Joe. Thanks for giving me a chance to respond. Support your local comic store, and follow AfterShock and our creative team on Twitter and Facebook. Wish our book luck, and please buy lots of copies!
Several decades ago the American comics medium in general – and Marvel Comics in specific – were criticized by some in fandom for being overly formulaic. I realize it is possible for a few fannish souls to overreact, but I have to admit there was an element of truthiness in their concern.
Today we can clearly see a contemporary incarnation of this issue. Not that plotlines are being rubber-stamped; slavish adherence to ever-shifting continuity undermines such creative shortcuts. No, today we are suffering from a different sort of redundancy: overexposure to such a degree that most truly successful superhero characters have become akin to amoebas.
I was just thumbing through the sundry Diamond catalogs announcing comics and related effluvia ostensibly set to ship this coming February. Out of convenience and a desire to meet my deadline, I am going to focus on Marvel’s output – but DC, and to a lesser extent other superhero publishers, are also guilty of sequential overexposure.
This coming February, Marvel is supposed to be shipping (in the unlikely event that my math is correct) no less than three Captain Marvel books, seven Avengers titles, four Deadpools, seven X-Men, three Inhumans titles, six featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy…
… and no less than fifteen titles featuring Spider-Man and his Spiderverse. Fifteen. Back when people were criticizing Marvel for recycling plots, they didn’t publish fifteen different titles a month! I guess that’s pretty damn good for a character that can’t even hold onto a major movie franchise.
Of course, the sundry Spideys also appear in various Avengers titles, as do most if not all of the aforementioned properties. And many of the other Avengers like Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America have their own titles as well.
It is true that this sort of thing has been going on for a long, long time. Maybe not quite as long as it may seem to geriatric fans who recall Superman appearing in seven different titles in the late 1950s (Superman, Action Comics, Superboy, Adventure Comics, World’s Finest, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen), but only two of those were published monthly. The rest were published bi-monthly or every six weeks. Still, five titles a month is a lot. Fortunately, continuity was weak at best and if you had an aversion to pill-box hats you could safely avoid Lois Lane (and her omnipresent scissors) and still understand what was going on in the other titles.
However, we have not previously seen such character redundancy to this degree. Not even when the original Captain Marvel and his family were featured in eight different titles back in the 1940s. Not all were monthlies, although the Big Red Cheese did see his own book go out every three weeks for a spell. Then again, in February at least two Spider-Man titles double-ship, and, for the record, February 2016 only has four ship weeks. It’s pretty rare that Leap Year Day falls on a Wednesday.
So, why is this a problem? Well, if you’re a massive Spider-Man fan, it might not be. However, ComicMix columnist Emily S. Whitten is a proud Deadpool fan, but having a job, a life, and a commitment to writing one of the best comics and pop culture columns on the Interwebs, so even Emily has a hard time keeping up with the nutty merc.
This is a problem because it undermines the uniqueness of the character. It’s called overexposure. We used to have three or four Punisher titles; in February 2016 Marvel won’t be releasing a single one.
Sure, as I said, all this goes for DC as well. They’ve been pushing Batman titles out as though they were Cheerios, and they out-X-Men the X-Men by having several thousand different characters all named Green Lantern.
At least Image only produces one Bitch Planet a month… and that’s on a good month. A very good month, in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.
For the past week the pop culture world has engaged in a post game analysis of the under-performing Fantastic Four movie. Instead of offering further analysis, I think it’s time to provide insights into an instance where the Marvel’s first family had more creative and authentic success onscreen.
My friend Tom Tataranowicz is a talented animation professional and a longtime comics fan. I’ve gotten to know him as we’re working together, with a talented team, to create the new Captain Action animated series… But that’s another story for another day. Tom’s impressive resume includes his work on the 1990s Fantastic Four animated show and, understanding his passionate dedication to his craft, I wanted to get his perspective on that “fantastic” experience.
When he is presented with a project like the Fantastic Four, Tom explained his approach to me. “I’m not trying to reinvent it. That’s not my job. Fealty to the original source material is key. Otherwise, fans say, ‘Where’s the comic I like?’ And I have to agree with them. I need to bring the fans’ dreams to life.”
The Secret Origin
Tom recalled just how he got involved with this Fantastic Four animated series. He had been working on the Biker Mice From Mars animated series and was completing the last of 65 episodes. The organization was called New World Animation at the time, and then the Marvel Films animation division started.
Avi Arad had just made the first season of the Fantastic Four cartoon with another unit, but they weren’t as well received as they had hoped for. One thought was that there were just too many characters crammed in there, in an overly zealous effort to support toy sales.
As Biker Mice From Mars was ending and they liked what he had done with that series, they reached out to Tom to take over both the Fantastic Four and Iron Man shows.
“I proposed that ‘I’m going to revamp everything,’“ recalled Tom.
On the FF show, Tom was rather perplexed that the previous team had chosen not to follow the comic’s official canon, focusing instead on often not too good, original stories. So his idea was to adapt classic stories from the comic book. The overall arc of the season that Tom developed revolved around the Inhumans’ introduction and subsequent exile.
And he also felt that it was important to change the look of the look of the main characters as well. The first season was using a robin’s egg blue color for the FF costumes that mirrored the existing toy line. But Tom’s vision was to establish a more heroic look by adapting the darker, blue/black, John Byrne style costumes of the 1980s.
“So I mapped out the season’s storylines and arcs and pitched it to Avi Arad and Rick Ungar. They liked it. I pitched it to Stan Lee. He liked it. I pitched it to Toy Biz and they liked it,” said Tom.
A Blind Man Shall Lead Them
But the question for season 2 was… Where to start? Looking over those old comic book stories, it became apparent that it was difficult, if not almost impossible, to get adequate material from just one issue to be enough for one very good episode. It often required story lines from multiple issues. “One particular story I always liked was the two parter from issues #39 and #40, A Blind Man Shall Lead Them, with Daredevil. It was also a real fan favorite. Plus, I thought having Daredevil in there would be very cool. And then, of course, it had the exciting bonus of being a Dr. Doom story. A perfect second season opener. As Stan Lee was fond of saying – Excelsior!”
“With the second episode, we launched into the Inhumans saga. That was the season’s arc and it was kicked off by a three parter,” Tom explained. “My B storyline for that arc was Johnny meeting and subsequently searching for Crystal.”
In the first season, the previous team had already told the “ultimate” Silver Surfer/Dr. Doom story, Doomsday. Tom didn’t like the way it turned out. “For the second season finale, I – admittedly, somewhat arrogantly – decided to redo that story and do it right; to do it as it truly deserved,” said Tom. He used the “Garden of Eden” beginning from Silver Surfer #4 as a way to introduce the Surfer and dovetailed it into the threat of Dr. Doom stealing the Surfer’s powers.
“I wanted to treat the Fantastic Four as if the stakes were always really huge. The Kree, The Skrulls, the Inhumans – they were all part of this epic comic book saga”, said Tom. “I even went to some of the John Byrne stories – to mix things up as well as to help amplify on stories while still staying faithful to the comics,” recalls Tom. “For example, there was this one episode where the FF were going after Ego, and encountered Thor and Galactus. It was one of the best animated shows ever done at that the time. After it aired I got calls from friends, colleagues and other studios – people I didn’t even know – saying that was one helluva good-looking show,” mused Tom. “That high degree of artistic success was why the series’ cancellation proved to be so bittersweet.”
In the first season, each episode had a minute-long introduction from Stan Lee in his office. “Stan is a lively, very personable guy, but I didn’t particularly see the necessity of doing those things in the beginning. I would much have rather used the time for the stories. Well, that didn’t sit particularly well with Stan, and I have to admit I completely understood his position.” said Tom. As a compromise, Tom added 15-second introductions that validated Stan’s contributions and creativity and had him matted in against cool painted backgrounds from the show.
Back then, most series, especially animated ones, were not told in sequential continued story arcs. Stand alone episodes were simply the way it was. Because there was the season long Inhumans continuity, around the eleventh episode of the season, Tom developed a recap episode. He used the Impossible Man (with a stellar voice performance by Jess Harnell of Animaniacs) in which he and Johnny interacted to cleverly segue into clips of the season’s events that had earlier transpired. As the Impossible Man was a more cartoony character, the animating studio, PASI, really went for it and did a great job on this episode, even though there was only 5 or 6 minutes of new animation. “From there we went on to the freeing of the Inhumans and everyone was then up to speed and ready for it.”
For the second season, as Voice Director, Tom kept most of the original voice cast. Brian Austin Green had bowed out as Johnny Storm and was re-cast. But one character Tom really wanted to change was Doctor Doom. “The first actor was certainly good but I felt the character came across as a bit too much of a mustache twirler,” said Tom.
Victor Von Doom was from Latveria, which seemed to be one those Eastern European/Germanic countries. And the aristocrats from those countries were well educated, as if they went to Oxford and thus often spoke with an English accent, Tom reasoned. So he recast Doom with Simon Templeman, whose voice had that nobility and who laced his performance with a unique aspect of condescension and decadence. “He did a memorably great job,” remembered Tom.
With the Inhumans being new characters to the series and so integral to the season’s arc, Tom had a clean slate to cast whomever he thought best for any particular role. Mark Hamill, who impressed everyone with his animated Joker, was a natural for Maximus the Mad. Likewise Star Trek – The Next Generation’s Michael Dorn was the perfect voice for Gorgon. “Black Bolt was easy he was basically mute, so he didn’t need a voice,” joked Tom.
The young Inhuman love interest for the Human Torch, Crystal, was very important to the storyline and she needed to be fresh. She was young, but she wasn’t a kid; she needed to have a womanly quality. “Then I saw supermodel actress Kathy Ireland, on television. I liked the quality of her voice and thought she’d be good.” Even though she wasn’t primarily a vocal actress, Tom was impressed at how hard she worked and how seriously she took it. The results were terrific – the perfect, definitive Crystal. And it all also helped with publicity – as her casting became a story on Entertainment Tonight.
“I always liked casting against type,” explained Tom. “The Silver Surfer was tough. What does he sound like? Stentorian? No. Too easy and cliché an approach.” So, it took a couple of attempts with various actors, but finally Tom cast Eddie (Green Acres) Arnold’s son, Edward Albert, as he felt the philosophical sound to the actor’s voice ideally suited the Surfer’s musings.
Keeping it Fantastic
Tom and his talented crew worked hard to keep the show true to what it was. “To me, the Fantastic Four was the self-proclaimed crown jewel of the Marvel Universe,” remembers Tom. “Even though I may have personally liked Spider-Man more as a kid, the FF was always the big kahuna, with the biggest stakes.”
So for the new main title sequence, Tom wanted to showcase the FF’s rich history. And he would tell it through a great iteration of iconic Kirby covers: FF #1, the tiny FF in the gigantic Dr. Doom’s hand from FF Annual #2, “Beware The Hidden Land” from issue #47, the four panel split screen from a later issue, in which the FF were each individually fighting an android.
He also used this main title to showcase the history of the FF’s costumes. From issue #1 with no costumes, through the 60’s Kirby look, a nod to the Season #1 robin egg’s blue costumes and finally to the then ‘current costumes’ inspired by John Byrne.
Tom did what he always did when creating a main title. He’d listen to the new music provided by the composer, Will Anderson. He’d drive and drive in his car, just trying to viscerally imagine where and how he’d place which visual images that were conjured up by beats with the music.
For the new look of the show, everyone’s first knee jerk reaction was to “do Kirby.” But Tom took issue with that. A big Kirby fan, Tom’s point of view was that if you mimic Jack Kirby’s work, it would run the almost inevitable risk of looking bad. Kirby’s art worked so well because of the strength of his uniquely individual talent. Only Kirby could truly be Kirby and thus there was also a realistic danger that the overseas studio artist working on the show just wouldn’t understand Kirby’s Style. So Tom took another approach. He hired legendary artist John Buscema to redo the characters. He based the show upon John’s also iconic Marvel look and own tenure on FF after Kirby left. In addition, he was able to send the overseas Philippines studio, PASI, that did the actual animation, John Buscema’s book, How the Draw Comics the Marvel Way, as well as the accompanying video of the book to explain it visually. “Buscema was an illustrator. He drew realistically and the anatomy made sense. Especially to the Filipino artists who loved American comic art. Everybody was extremely happy with that approach,” recalls Tom.
Overall, Tom was very pleased with the show. Great stories. Terrific animation. Top notch voice acting. Unfortunately, the show didn’t earn the ratings needed to continue, and many believe that was because fans just thought it would be more of the same from the first season and never gave it a chance.
There were plans for a third season. Tom had developed the arc that focused on Sue’s pregnancy, Agatha Harkness and the birth of Franklin. But Tom wanted to start the season with the Invisible Woman running away with Namor, the Sub-Mariner. “There could be Sub-Mariner action figures, so the toy people liked that”, he explained.
During production, it was mandated that the Hulk guest star in an episode (and also in an episode of the companion series Iron Man), so the progression to the subsequent Hulk series made sense.
The Incredible Hulk series on UPN came next. “I had an overall plan of what I wanted to do with each new series – I wanted to do them (all the Marvel Series) so they all looked very different from one another. My idea was that each series would be unique. Here’s our Gene Colan show, here’s our John Byrne show, or our Ditko or McFarlane show. Like how it would be if you picked out one of the comics from the rack. Not cookie cutter” said Tom.
“As always, it was hard work, but it was gratifying,” said Tom. “I am very proud of what we accomplished. It was one of the few times in television that a studio had truly done right by a comic book.”