when heroes turn bad

Tue Feb-6th-2007 // Filed under: Word Balloons

Despite my bitching, I, like many other geeks, have to admit that I hold Stan Lee in fairly high regard. I mean, yeahokayfine, he’s a somewhat controversial figure and not quite as jolly and friendly as the old Stan’s Soapbox columns might lead you to believe, and he probably didn’t deserve all that credit for his writing and yeah, he’s pretty good at hogging the limelight from guys who really deserved more recognition for their part in creating some of the most memorable comic book characters ever. Let’s just take all that as read.

But that said: despite his faults, to deny Lee’s contribution to the development of American comics in general and superhero comics in particular is idiotic. Particularly back in the sixties, Stan “The Man” was a creative and editorial powerhouse who kicked so much ass so sweetly that we’re still nursing the bruises and asking for more.

That’s Stan Lee. And then there’s John Romita Sr., who brought the soft lines he’d perfected in the romance comics he worked on for DC to The Amazing Spider-Man and gave the book the downright perfect combination of soap opera and people bitch slapping each other with cars. I know that of the early Spider-Man artists, some people strongly prefer Steve Ditko’s work — it was a little more cartoony, it had a rougher edge to it, and it could be argued that it conveyed a wider range of emotion than Jazzy Johnny Romita’s highly polished art that seemed to include an endless parade of the silently suffering Peter Parker’s downcast eyes and the teary women that surrounded him. Whatever. Many of my best childhood comic book memories come from the pocket-sized black and white Spider-Man collections, and I can tell you right off the bat that Romita’s clean lines work like a charm sans colors. It doesn’t take anything away from Ditko to say that Romita’s shit is the bomb.

But, of course, that was then. Stan Lee, in particular, hasn’t worked on a book worth a damn in decades (though he’s been pretty active on other fronts, what with Who Wants to be a Superhero , etc.). I think the last major effort from him was Ravage 2099, published in 1992, which was a thouroughly embarassing effort. When a guy who was hip in the 60s still tries to be hip today by emulating the worst parts of the then-ridiculously-popular grim’n’gritty trend… well, let’s just say it left something to be desired. Not that he lasted long on the book; in issue #9 he was already out.

Still, there’s worse than Ravage out there, and unfortunately, The Man and Jazzy Johnny were both involved. I know I’ve harped on this one a little before in Fun Pastimes’ previous incarnation, but what the hell, it’s worth repeating. Yes, I’m talking about that gem of gems: Spider-Man/Kingpin: To the Death. Published in 1997, written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita Sr., this exciting story is — and I quote the blurb on the back cover, here — a “once-in-a-lifetime treat” and “the most chilling chapter in the career of illustrated fiction’s truly inimitable icon: Spider-Man!” I am also informed that “The stakes are high — the excitement higher!”

Well, that sounds good! Let’s take a look, shall we?

The story opens with three street-level crooks boosting a bunch of watches, when they’re interrupted by Spider-Man! They’re about to resist arrest, when Spidey points his web-shooters at them… but there’s a twist:

These guys don’t get off easy by just eating some hot lead like most guys. No, they have to eat cold, deadly lead.
Spidey don’t settle for nothin’ less when he perpetratin’, yo.

But — that’s so out of character for Spider-Man! You don’t suppose… Perhaps… Wait, now! Could it be… Could it be that this Spider-Man is a fake? Well, what do you think, true believer?

But, oh no, the intrepid reporters at the Daily Bugle aren’t concerned with little things like people getting framed for crimes they didn’t commit. They’re freaking out all over the place. They were having a perfectly nice little conversation about the international terrorist Zoltaro, who Ben Urich insists is bad news. This conversation dates the book more than anything else in it ever could: in 1997, Robbie Robertson actually asks Ben what the big deal about this guy is, and Ben has to justify it by explaining that according to Interpol, Zoltaro plans to seize a new weapon codenamed Death’s Arrow. (Interpol’s awfully up to date on this one.) Just being a terrorist isn’t bad enough! But even that’s not enough for Robbie, who has a newspaper to run and can’t be bothered to worry about little things like this.

They’d probably continue arguing about this, but Glory Grant barges in and tells Robbie that there’s a call for him on line two. And there is! Random Reporter informs Robbie that Spider-Man just capped three crooks. When Robbie asks him if he’s sure, he responds that of course he’s sure, because he’s got the bodies right there!

Ding! We’re on page four of the story, and already it runs headfirst into a brick wall. How the fuck do these guys know it was Spider-Man, when all three crooks are dead and Lee even takes the trouble to tell us that when the five-oh get there, there’s nothing there except three dead guys. Excuse me, “three bullet-riddled corpses”. With an exclamation mark! So, exactly how did they identify him as a suspect?

Ahh, never mind, Robbie’s convinced. Like an exceptionally intelligent and seasoned journalist who knows his shit like few others in the Big Apple, and who is generally known as the voice of reason in the Daily Bugle offices and the counterpoint to the raving lunacy that J. Jonah Jameson brings to the workplace, he reacts with his trademark calm.

“Yes, forget Zoltaro! For we can only run a single story in any given issue of the Bugle, and I choose that it must be about Spider-Man!”

Yeah, Robbie, he’s a danger to you all! Never mind that terrorist guy, here’s a guy with a gun. Perhaps two guns. And he shoots people. Good lord, the city of New York has never known such a threat before!

Peter Parker, on the other hand, just kind of hangs out in the background for no particular reason, because apparently he’s been called in to this terrorist briefing in the middle of the night, as freelance photographers often are. He’s lazily glancing back from the mesmerizing cityscape on the other side of the window, as Robbie screams into the phone so hard that he can barely hold it in his hand. What’s that, Robbie? I’m a murder suspect and we’re all in danger? Okay! Say, guys, any chance of a cup of that good Daily Bugle coffee? Mmmm mmmm, that’s some good coffee.

Well. We cut away to a bunch of mob guys playing cards. Spidey crashes in through the window and shoots up the poker game. (This time one of the guys there is even left alive! Good call, Stan — that’s a witness who can tell others what happened!)

We get three headlines: “SPIDER-MAN BERSERK???”, “SPIDER-MAN MASSACRE!” and “SPIDER-MAN OR PUNISHER?” The last one doesn’t really make any sense, since generally speaking, when the Punisher starts busting caps, there’s no fucking doubt who’s cleaning house. But what the hell! By now, J. Jonah Jameson’s creaming his pants and once again doing his patented “I was right all along, nyahaha!” dance. Robbie, on the other hand, isn’t sure. Yeah, that skepticism handily explains your “holy shit, we’re all doomed!” outburst earlier, Robbie.

That said, credit where credit’s due: that straw man logic combined with completely unapologetic glee at the thought of there being a super-powered murderer loose in the city… that’s vintage JJJ, right there. I love it.

Anyway. We turn the page and encounter a skillfully executed transition with a subtle caption, along with some equally subtle exposition:


Well, Spidey barges in, only to discover that the crooks inside go weak in the knees and run away, observing as they go that “maybe if they’re lucky they’ll find a cop” (Ha ha! Usually criminals don’t want to run into cops! What a humorous turn of the events!) and that “jail’s better than gettin’ shot!” They exit the jewelry store, and there’s a cop car right there, so they can handily surrender. One of the cops takes care of the robbers, while the other one instantly opens fire on Spider-Man.

And Spider-Man is very confused. “There’s something mighty strange goin’ on here,” he observes as he swings away from the scene. Well, yeah! What, this is a surprise to you, Spider-Man? I mean, you were only there when Robbie got that call. And since then, there’ve been three headlines on the Daily Bugle, which would — to my twisted thinking — indicate that it’s been three days since then, what with the Daily Bugle being a daily publication and all. And you only noticed this weird thing now? I realize you’re not Batman when it comes to all this deduction business, but do try to keep up.

But all this thinking has to stop, because just when he’s chilling out under the Brooklyn Bridge, with no warning save the timely tingle of the spider-sense, his friend, the Human Torch, a guy who’s known the wall-crawler for years and years and with whom, despite all the wisecracks and whatnot, there’s at least some semblance of a rapport, throws a fireball at him. Y’know, instead of asking what’s up with these stories about him, or asking him to surrender, or something. And instead of protesting his innocence, or trying to explain, or something, Spider-Man flees. That’s not too difficult, since the Torch just can’t be bothered to fly behind the bridge and see if he’s back there or something. “Well, one of the others’ll get him,” the Torch muses, apparently not really worried about letting a murderer escape. Fair enough!

And true enough, there are others as well, because by now Spidey’s hanging on the side of a truck that’s driving along the bridge. He encounters Captain America, who tosses his shield at Spider-Man and barely misses. (The Torch is long forgotten by now — we are already on the next page, after all! Keep up, slowpokes, the stakes are high and the excitement’s higher, remember?) The good captain then offers Spider-Man some friendly advice, keeping well in mind some treasured American ideals about justice and fair play, such as “innocent until proven guilty” and whatnot.

Spider-Man then cleverly escapes Captain America by crawling under the truck. Maybe the truck catches a green wave and Cap gets a cramp in his leg or something, I don’t know. He gets away from Cap, but not from the splash page.

And that’s some splash page — though honestly? There’s a better one yet to come. Stick around!

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

Well. Long story short, Spider-Man gets away and changes into civilian clothes. He’s understandably depressed, but not only because of this whole “framed for murder” thing. Oh, no. He’s also feeling down because he also runs into the Thing, and the Thing asks him if he’s seen that crummy wall-crawler anywhere. Naturally, Peter Parker says no.

And, well, that just eats him up. “I’m real proud of myself, having to lie to one of the greatest heroes of all!” he thinks. Why does he have to lie? Christ, what a stupid question! Because if he doesn’t lie to them and doesn’t run away instead of saying that he’s innocent and pointing out that there’s no actual proof and that it could be anyone in the costume and that he’s fought countless times side by side with the guys who’re now hunting him — if he doesn’t do that, then there’s no story. Duh.

Try to hang in there, Pete, because now we see what the Kingpin is up to. He’s working with Dr. Mindella, the man behind the Death’s Arrow! It’s a drug that will increase the user’s strength for at least six hours — before it kills him! The Kingpin plans to sell it to Zoltaro, so that he can finance his plan to once again take control of the New York underworld. The Kingpin is also behind this whole fake Spider-Man thing. Why? Because, uh… he’s evil. That’s pretty much it.

In the meantime, Matt Murdock is concerned about his friend Peter’s plight and decides to help him. He changes into his Daredevil costume and goes after him. Peter’s clocking in some family time and generally brooding about the whole thing. And here comes that splash page I promised! It’s not the page itself so much as it is the ridiculous captions that only Stan Lee could slap into a 1997 comic book with a straight face. Check it:

This kind of a thing tends to leave a man speechless. Now that actual irony would be welcome, there’s none to be found… say, actually, that is kind of ironic.
Don’t you think?

(Even though Lee doesn’t want to waste any of his precious copy on that picture, in the next panel he points out that there’s not a single undressed woman in the entire book. That’s… interesting.)

Well, the happy couple’s evening walk is cut short when Peter’s spider-sense starts buzzing. “The tingling’s stronger than ever,” Peter muses. It turns out it’s Daredevil. Apparently, a non-hostile Daredevil sets the spider-sense off harder than, oh, a guy aiming at his head with a sniper rifle or a nuclear device about to explode. I guess that only goes to show how much of a badass Daredevil is. They go to a bar and beat up some people, and immediately get a lead on the fake Spider-Man thing. It’s easy when you know how! They find Dr. Mindella, who’s busily injecting four guys dressed up as Spidey with Death’s Arrow.

Fisticuffs ensue. So does irony (see, you can’t say that there isn’t any in this book — sure there is, it’s just not quite where Stan Lee thinks it is), when Lee starts to put down the dialogue in DC Comics. Sure, it’s done tongue in cheek, but honestly? When you do it in a book like this, that’s some serious pot’n’kettle action right there, no matter how much you’re kidding.

But — oh no! Daredevil gets infected with the Death’s Arrow, runs off and attacks Kingpin, because he overheard the bad guys talking about the fat boy. He’s crazed and inhumanly strong, but the Kingpin gets lucky, because once the drug wears off, Daredevil becomes far too weak even stay conscious, let alone fight. But wait — what was that about the drug lasting six hours? Didn’t they say earlier that the drug lasts for at least six hours, and now Daredevil just gets his dose, dashes across town to Kingpin’s hideout, spouts terrible one-liners and gets his ass kicked. No way did that take six hours! It probably didn’t even take twenty minutes! Well, you see, you have to understand that this is just how Stan Lee works his magic. Shut up and read on, because it’s very exciting.

Anyway, the Kingpin decides to give Daredevil another dose of the stuff to, uh, I dunno. Make him real strong, I guess. Or to see how long he lasts. It’s an awesome plan, Mr. Fisk, sir, that’s why you always win. Meanwhile, Spidey works up an antidote and starts looking for Daredevil. But where to find him? Well, let’s call investigative reporter Ben Urich, he’ll probably know where the terrorist is going to buy the secret terrible Death’s Arrow weapon.

And Ben does, too. Don’t call the cops or nothin’, Ben, that’s awesome thinking.

So, the Kingpin and Zoltaro meet. The Kingpin gets money. Zoltaro gets the Death’s Arrow. But Kingpin has Dr. Mindella inject Daredevil with the second dose (he didn’t do it earlier after all, even though the dialogue implied that he would) so that he can go berserk and kill Zoltaro and his men. That way the Kingpin gets to keep the merchandise and the money. (He already has the guy who invented the stuff in his pocket, so you’d think it wasn’t that important, but what the hell, might as well be evil all the way. That’s character development!) But Zoltaro’s also doing a double cross — he blows up the Kingpin’s limo. (He planned ahead, too! He put the money in a bomb-proof case! That’s usin’ the old noggin!) But the hornhead still attacks Zoltaro’s goons, so it’s a free-for-all.

Then Spider-Man and Daredevil fight, Daredevil is dying, Spidey tries to inject him with the antidote, yadda yadda.

Meanwhile, Zoltaro tries to sneak off with Death’s Arrow, but runs into the Kingpin. How did the fat man survive? Oh, he’s clever. He wasn’t fooled by Zoltaro, you see. He was prepared for this eventuality:

Yeah, that’s why car bombs are harmless as long as you’re not in the exploding car when they go off.

Then the Kingpin strangles Zoltaro, because, y’know, nobody double-crosses the Kingpin and all that. In the end, everyone’s happy, because now they know that Spider-Man’s not really the killer and Daredevil is okay and Zoltaro’s dead and Death’s Arrow has been secured and the world is a better place.

Even the Kingpin takes his defeat in stride and waxes philosophical about the whole thing in what has to be the most inane ending I’ve seen in ages — I’ve read this thing a bunch of times over the years, and I always just crack up at this shit:

Yeeeah, Willie, you just keep on playing the odds. A thought occurs: If he’s honestly gotten wiser every time he’s lost a battle, and this is how far he’s managed to come in all these years and all these battles, can you imagine what kind of a complete fucking moron he must’ve been when he started out?

Okay! Your limo got blown up and you lost your Death’s Arrow drug and the guy who makes it for you and your money and you got all burned and all your plans went to shit and Daredevil smacked you around a little and you’re back to square one, minus a crazy scientist and a limo and a set of clothes and some henchmen, but, y’know, next time you’ll win. Absolutely. Positive attitude. Gotta love it.

But let’s review your little plan here, Mr. Fisk: you want to become New York’s underworld’s numero uno again, and to finance that campaign you’re going to sell a dangerous combat drug to an international terrorist. Okay! So then you dress up a bunch of guys as Spider-Man and have them kill random criminals, which in turn draws a shitload of heat, which in turn causes Daredevil and Spider-Man to come after you, which in turn completely fucks up your plan. Also, you do business with a guy you think might blow up your limo and solve that problem by standing next to your limo. And then you kill that guy. Actually, come to think of it, you don’t even need Spider-Man and Daredevil here; you’d still have fucked this up even if they hadn’t showed up at all. Great plan, Mr. Kingpin, sir.

The Kingpin’s plan makes no sense, and the story itself is just full of plotholes, inconsistencies and logical fallacies. And to top it off, the dialogue and the narration are just awful — I mean, okay, I guess you could go on a nostalgia trip and pretend that this is good, but it’s not. It’s not even evocative of the good old days, because the really memorable Lee stories from way back when aren’t like this. They show their age, sure, but this is a joke.

Even Romita’s art looks lackluster at best. He’s being inked by Dan Green, who did some excellent work on The Uncanny X-Men back when Romita’s son, John Romita Jr. was working on it in the mid-eighties. Back then, JR Jr. already had a distinctive style, but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t anywhere near as polished as it is now. Green made JR Jr. look good. They worked well together. Here, though, Green’s fairly loose inking style contrasts badly with the older Romita’s work, and the end result is sloppy — not that this is Romita’s best work, either. And Lee… well, he’s apparently reined in by nothing but his own sense of proportion, subtlety and storytelling, and let’s face it, that sounds about as good as having Ted Bundy as your own personal Jiminy Cricket.

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