Shadow of the Bunny
The Easter Bunny is a savage and unforgiving beast. This I always knew. I watched in dismay last week as he refused my daughter’s reasonable request for somehing practical and useful: the unyielding edict of the Bunny is that he brings only what is useless and frivolous. And chocolate, sometimes.
I thought I got off easy this year, as the Bunny brought me something I’d often thought about getting myself: the complete Spider-Man (complete at least through 2005). I haven’t been reading a lot of comics lately, but the Sam Raimi movies reminded me of how much I liked Spider-Man as a kid, and I’d often thought about having another look at them to see if they stood up to rereading.
The answer, of course, is that they do and they don’t. Some of the early stories creak audibly, even in PDF form, and there are definitely pacing problems. Page after page of costumed characters going THWAK! Ver-PLOCKKXKK! GLRRRT! at each other doesn’t really constitute storytelling, and as I boredly tapped on the “forward” button I felt some déjà vu from my school-age self, thinking these same thoughts forty-some years ago.
On the other hand, I thought then and think now that it’s pretty amusing when Spider-Man psychoanalyzes his opponents in-between punches. (“Why is it that everyone I fight is overflowing with neurotic hostility?”) And I like it that he has to use his brains to get out of most serious problems–it’s not all thwackery amd bonkery. And it’s just part of the Spider-Man set-up that he has this screwed-up personal life full of problems that superpowers can’t solve.
So: good and bad. But the worst shock that awaited me had nothing to do with the suspenseful plotting of (“Smilin'”) Stan Lee or Johnny (“Ring-a-Ding”) Romita. The horrifying details (with a possible Blood of Ambrose spoiler) beyond the jump.
In Amazing Spider-Man 25, J. Jonah Jameson gets a robot from an amoral (if not actually mad) scientist named Smythe. The robot’s face-screen projects a human face (the one of whoever is controlling it) but the rest of the body is armored. Spider-Man manages to disarm it ultimately in close combat by messing with the controls in its chest.
The déjà vu I got from this was even less pleasant, its source more recent.
“Sheesh,” muttered the Easter Bunny. “Squint a bit and you’ve got Morlock’s fight with the golem-knight in Chapter Three of Blood of Ambrose.”*
“Shut up!” I shrieked.
“I’m not saying it’s plagiarism,” the Bunny replied, not shutting up. “But I’d say the one scene is obviously the germ of the other. Why else did you put the life-scroll of the golem in its chest, while most golem-legends have the activating inscription on the forehead?”
“The forehead is too obviously vulnerable. It’s not a dangerous weapon if the victim can easily turn it off.”
“But still–this is one of the earliest issues you actually remember reading, right? The creepy image of Jonah’s face on the screen of the killer robot–who could forget that. Right?”
When provoked, I am the mildest of men, so I simply grabbed the nearest heavy object and flailed around until the voices in my head grew quiet. It nearly always works.
Unfortunately, the same issue (as it were) arose when I later read an earlier issue (taking them somewhat out-of-order). In this one (ASM 20), J.J.J. employs another mad (or, at least, ethically-challenged) scientist to create a superhero who can defeat Spider-Man. The hero turns out to be a villain and, in my view, one of the dumbest looking villains in the Marvel Rogues Gallery. He’s called the Scorpion, but where actual scorpions are pointy and reddish-brown (or other earthy colors), this guy’s tail was blunt and rounded and his costume was a weird stripey green. He looks sort of like an evil Tigger–more comical than sinister. (Later iterations looked a little tougher.)
But the Scorpion is dedicated to destroying the hero, and he proves his strength by grabbing a stone block and smashing it.
“Hoo boy,” said the Bunny, and I turned to face him. By now he strongly resembled Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko. “Let’s see,” the sinister Bunny continued. “We have the executive-type villain, the amoral scientist, the artificially created or enhanced antagonist who proves his strength by smashing a stone block–just like in Ch. 2 of Blood of Ambrose.*
“Looks like these images lay buried in your memory until you used their moldy skeletons as the framework for scenes in Blood of Ambrose.”
Things were getting out of hand, so I used the most powerful incantation at my command to banish the spectral, increasingly sinister Bunny.
“It’s not plagiarism! It’s an homage!”
The Bunny vanished like a nightmare or like Harry Kellerman at the end of Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?.
I began to breathe a little easier and went back to reading. Who knows what he would have said if I hadn’t exorcised him? Probably something about creativity never occurring in a vacuum, that it’s the use you make of source material that counts, etc. etc. You know: crazy talk.
Anyway, the whole thing helped me make a decision I’ve been mulling over for a while. Next Easter, the menu at the Fortress of Engitude will include hassenpfeffer. That should keep any spectral bunnies at bay.
*(The interested can check this out for themselves on the Pyr Sample Chapters blog.–Generous Jim.)
James, have you checked out Ultimate Spider-Man? It came out a few years back and will soon be coming to an end. I’ve read that through most of the way (I lost a bit of interest when they switched artists). Pretty cool retelling of the tale, and since it’s part of the Ultimate Marvel universe, the writers had a lot more liberty to do what they wanted without interfering with any existing Spider-Man titles.
Just before the holidays I took my son to Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. High among the many boyish delights was the Spider-Man ride, which I had no problem acompanying the kid on several times over. Back home it occured to me that I was never much of a Spider-Man fan (I prefered Conan and the super-science sensawunda of the Fantastic Four), and that I really ought to try reading some of the old originals. Starting at the beginning, I’m up to issue #79.
First off, that was some pretty distant inspiration you drew from those old issues of Spidey. Even Stan Lee could have read the scenes in Blood of Ambrose and not spotted any influence. I sure didn’t.
Second, yeah, Spider-Man is cool. I had less trouble with the prolonged fight scenes than you did. I tend to put myself in the same frame of mind I’d be in were I watching a martial arts movie, and just admire the choreography. What plagued me more was how many times Stan fell back on the plot based upon, “I, Evil Villain Number 27, having returned/escaped from jail/been reborn in a new form/awakened from my naptime, am utterly obsessed by my recent defeat by Spider-Man and shall not rest/stop filling pages/shut up until I have utterly defeated him before all the world!” The best issues have a surprising, if corny, emotional power. Issues 32 and 33 are particularly fine, with our hero giving a Role Model level example of never giving up when it comes to Doing the Right Thing.
Hey Matt–“Ultimate” sounds interesting. I might have a run at it after I get through the ASM issues. (About 29 years to go on that project!) Spider-Man’s early life is a story that really wants a more sophisticated retelling, with more of an arc and less of a villain-of-the-month format.
Hey John–I liked the FF, too, and the original X-Men. (I lost interest the first time they killed off Dr. X and brought him back.) Conan I got later from the old Lancer paperback collections.
I’m glad you’re with me and against the Easter Bunny on the plagiarism thing. But you should have heard the click in my head when I looked at those issues. I’m sure that’s where I got those particular narrative ideas. Still, ideas are meant to be used and passed around, so…
I know what you mean about the creaky “I have returned for my VENgeANCE!” plots–they do get old. And I agree about the emotional power. The writers’ concern with PP’s inner life or his social life often results in mere mopery, but when it works with (rather than against) the plot, it really does give the story a lot of thump.
When my kids were early readers (say, late 1990s) I thought about getting them into comics. But when I looked at issues on the stands I couldn’t even tell who the good guys were supposed to be. As an adult I sort of prefer this, but I think it’s a lot for a six-year old to handle. It’s not surprising to me when I hear that comics, like sf, has a graying fan base.
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