Friday, January 2, 2015

BAB Firsts (the 1st Partner Review): The Comics Code Authority: Revised to Relax

This post was originally published on July 13 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #124, September 1973
“The Mark of the Man-Wolf!”
Gerry Conway/Gil Kane & John Romita

Doug: Welcome to our initial installment of an on-going series on post-Code comics. Periodically in the coming weeks and months we’re going to discuss Marvel’s venture into previously forbidden territory: werewolves, zombies, vampires, demons – you name it. If it was too violent or too occult, then it was too much for the Seduction of the Innocent-inspired Comics Code Authority!

Karen: I’m sure everyone knows that the Code was established in 1954, in part in response to the EC Comics of the day, which often featured gruesome stories of the macabre. The Code was very restrictive, and outlawed the depiction of zombies, vampires, werewolves, and so forth. It was not until the Code was revised in 1971 that monsters were again free to prowl the comic racks! At least, vampires and werewolves were; for some reason, zombies were still off-limits (although Marvel got around this by calling them zuvembies!).

Karen: So Marvel decided to jump on the monster bandwagon. Many new monster characters began appearing in the 70s, including the subject of this review, the Man-Wolf. In an interview in Comic Book Artist #13, then-Marvel editor Roy Thomas describes the birth of the Man-Wolf:

“Stan just wanted a character called Man-Wolf. It was that whole Marvel-flooding-the-market- thing! If you’ve got Dracula, you can have Morbius. If you’ve got Werewolf, you can have Man-Wolf. We didn’t have a concept for Man-Wolf, and Gerry (Conway) and John Romita were trying to come up with something. My only contribution was to say, ‘Hey, make it J. Jonah Jameson’s son! He was an astronaut, and he went up in space, and he found a moon rock, and it turns him into a wolf!’ Just like Morbius was a science-fictional vampire, we could make Man-Wolf a science fiction werewolf.”

Doug: As any true Marvelite will know, Amazing Spider-Man #124 comes only two months after the fateful events that concluded in ASM #122 – the deaths of Peter Parker’s long-time love Gwen Stacy and his most dangerous enemy the Green Goblin. In fact, Spidey thinks to himself (and to clue us in) that it’s only been 10 days since those deaths.

Karen: It’s interesting to me how Peter is shown as trying to get past the death of his girlfriend – at one point he thinks, “All I want to do is forget---start my life over again.” I think Conway hit this right on the nose, as I’ve seen this sort of thing in a number of male friends and family who have lost someone. For some, there’s a desire to avoid dealing with the pain and to just begin anew.

Doug: Do you think, though, that when Conway tells us that it’s only been 10 days that there is a slight reconciliation of time problem for the reader – after all, for him/her it had been 60 days! Ah, the old discussion of Marvel-time vs. real-time…

Doug: Conway is at the top of his game in this story. You know, every time I read a Bronze Age-era story, I’m just overcome with joy at the characterization, the amount of words per page, and the use of narration boxes and thought balloons to move the story along. Conway, of course, currently works as a screenwriter and one can see how he cut his teeth back in the day in the storyboard-like genre of comic books. He nails J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson – their verbal sparring is spot on given the way Stan Lee used to write them. Conway also gives us a great deal of emotion in Peter, fully displaying his anguish and insecurity over the events of the past two weeks.

Karen: I know what you mean Doug; you actually have to spend 20 minutes or more reading these old books! When I read a new comic, it’s usually done in 5 minutes! Personally, I like the thought balloons and captions; it gives us a way of seeing in the characters’ heads that’s not afforded by current methods – which apparently are driven by the idea that comics should be like movies, which is ludicrous; they’re two distinctly different art forms.

Doug: The art in this story is by Gil Kane with embellishment by John Romita. This is a nice combination – I’ve often felt that while JR’s Spidey is the quintessential look for the character, Kane brought back a little bit of Ditko-esque presentation to the book. Kane tends to be longer, sinewy, wiry. Romita, while his pencils were graceful, didn’t have quite the same pell-mell look to Spidey that Ditko had begun. Where Romita really adds to Kane’s linework is in cleaning up the faces and giving them a consistent look with which we’d grown familiar.

Karen: Kane was the artist on the title when I began reading it. But I was aware of Romita because of Marvel Tales, and I’ve always thought of Romita when I think of Spidey. That being said, I like Kane’s depiction of Spidey for the same qualities you mention: the leaner look is appealing. I enjoyed Romita’s inks because it also meant I didn’t have to look up everyone’s nose! I never understood Kane’s obsession with that…

Doug: Gil Kane’s noses – no doubt!! Noses were the main thing that put me off toward Kane when I was a kid. As an adult, I’ve really come to appreciate his work (particularly his Silver Age Green Lantern and Atom for DC).

Doug: The basics of the story are this: We are reintroduced to J. Jonah Jameson’s son John. To the best of my knowledge, John was last seen in ASM #42 (which is also the first appearance of Mary Jane Watson), and hadn’t been seen since. John is an astronaut, reportedly the last man to walk on the moon. Jonah is justifiably proud of John, and even more so when introduced to John’s fiancée. But John holds a secret, contained in the necklace he wears. A side observation here, yet pertinent to the story: in his original appearance, John was a redhead but in this book his hair is some shade of gray. But think about it – have you ever seen a red werewolf? Anyway, John does indeed turn into a werewolf, and of course ends up in pitched battle with Spider-Man. We are left with an approaching sequel to that battle as our last-panel cliffhanger.

Karen: I always liked the look of Man-Wolf. I suspect that he was gray so as not to be confused with Marvel’s other lupine hero, Werewolf by Night! Manny also had a more bestial look to me – more of a snout than WBN. But you’re right; Jameson had reddish hair in his previous appearances. He also re-appeared in ASM a few times after ish 42. In issues 55-58 he was the security chief for a special project (“The Nullifier Weapon”!) and even met Robbie Robertson then, something that obviously neither Gerry nor Roy remembered! He showed up for a few panels in issues 71 and 88 as well.

Karen: It occurs to me that Manny is one of the few gray-colored characters to stay that color. Of course the Hulk started as Grayskin and became Greenskin, and the Beast, who had mutated into his furry form just a year before this comic came out, was also originally gray, but quickly became blue – because there are so many blue-furred animals in nature!

Doug: You are a reference goddess, Karen! As you can see, my laziness has arisen to bite me on the behind. So, with minimal effort I will provide a link to the Marvel Wikia, which will give the curious observer not just the above-stated young JJ appearances, but all of his appearances on Earth-616:

Karen: A nice aspect of this story is that it gives us a chance to see Jonah as something other than just a comedic foil for Spidey. Every once in awhile, Stan would show us that there was more to J.J.J. than all his bluster, and Conway does it here too. His feelings towards his son illustrate that he was more than a one-dimensional character.

Doug: Back to the Code for a second – I have to ask, after reading this story: What was so bad about the werewolf angle? There wasn’t any blood, there wasn’t really a graphic use of Man-Wolf’s claws – really nothing that would scare or alarm a reader outside of normal (whatever that is!) super-baddie behavior!

Karen: I think the Code had really been devised for the more gruesome comics of the 50s; under Stan, Marvel books always had action, but very little real violence. In this story, Man-Wolf is no more violent than any other Spidey villain. I don’t think that was necessarily the case with the stuff EC had put out, although I doubt it would have turned kids into psychopaths. I think Werewolf by Night was a little more graphic, with the Werewolf actually attacking people, but again, at least in the color books, the violence was minimal. It was just the way Stan wanted to do things, to keep the comics mild enough for kids.

Karen: Next time we’ll look at the exciting conclusion to our tale!


Chris PV said...

I still remember the first time I saw the word "zuvembie." I giggled for a while. It's just impossible to say "Oh no! It's a ZUVEMBIE!" with a horrified tone. Try it without laughing and if you succeed I'll send you a shiny new nickel.

And John Romita Sr. will always be my definitive Spider-Man, followed closely by Ross Andru. That is all.

Doug said...

Chris --

We promise you more about zuvembies in the coming weeks!!

I agree with you -- the look John Romita, Sr. brought to Amazing Spider-Man is without peer. I think the first Ross Andru Spidey I had (or saw) was #138 -- the Menace of the Mind-Worm!! THAT was one creepy dude! I also had a copy of #146 where the cover shows the Scorpion about to strike the hospitalized Aunt May. While the cover was by Romita, the interiors were by Andru.

Man, those were the days...

Chris PV said...

See, the first two Spidey comics I ever owned were ASM 133 and 136, pirated from my father's old comics in my grandparents' house. That was my first real exposure to the character, and I read those issues over and over for so long that I still have them memorized. Thus, Andru is really close to my heart.

It's only in the last few years that I've really delved into the old stuff, and Romita just stole my heart. Call me a philistine though, but I just don't care for Ditko. His faces are just so, well, weird.

Man, it feels good to get that off my chest. I feel freer!

Doug said...

As I said in the post, in agreeing with Karen, Gil Kane has never done it for me at Marvel. I know there are some who see him as a genius; I think one of the regular posters over on the AA! boards even said that Kane was his all-time fave penciller. Not me. In fact, I just finished doing a little reading ahead of a short series Karen and I have planned and Kane's art was serviceable at best. Sandwiched between Romita and Andru, it just comes in third place on my like-scale!

Chris, how do you feel about Sal Buscema on Spidey? I always thought his Spider-Man was a little more filled-out like Romita's. Of course I am referring to Sal's Marvel Team-Up era, and not some of the last stuff he did.

By the way, were you aware that there is a book shortly forthcoming that begins to reprint the Lee/Romita Spider-Man newspaper strips??

Karen said...

I like Gil Kane's anatomy on some characters, like Spider-Man. He certainly influenced Jim Starlin, who is a favorite artist of mine. But I never cared for Kane's faces.

"Zuvembies"- hee hee. That rascally Roy Thomas....

Chris PV said...

Well, I may be in the minority but I actually really dug his tenure on Spectacular Spider-Man in the late 80's or early 90's. I normally am not much for the more line heavy work, but it just packed so much emotion into the panel that I really dug it.

When was Sal the penciller on MTU? I'm working through it with the essentials as I go, but I don't remember seeing him specifically.

Kane is fine, and I enjoy him okay, but he's not at the top of the list for me. I reserve my highest accolades for Kirby, Romita, Swan, Neal Adams, and either Buscema. JR Jr. has actually shot up in my estimation recently as well. I remember first becoming really aware of him with his work on X-Men for a bit in the early 90's, and just hating it. Now that I've seen his work on Iron Man and early Spidey, I get that he was trying to differentiate himself from his dad. Nowadays, when he's got a real feel for his own style, I find it works much, much better. Byrne, Perez, and Mike Wieringo get honorable mentions. I love Andru, but I think it's more of a sentimental pick than anything else. He's trying very hard to get that Romita feel, methinks.

But, if you have to put my feet to the fire, I'll always take Kirby. The first 100 issues of FF are, for my money, the best single run ever.

Never really cared for newspaper strips as a dramatic medium. I think that 22 pages is just about the right time for a decent story structure. It only needs to be longer if you've got a really big yarn to spin.

I think it's funny how much I relate to stuff from the generation before mine. As I always tell my friends "Hey, it's not our fault our generation has produced nothing of worth!"

Doug said...

Chris --

Here's a link to Sal's MTU work - this link is from a much larger database. I'll add the main site to our links on the sidebar!

I like your list of favorite artists and would include the on a list I might generate. John Buscema is my #1 guy, and Neal Adams would follow closely behind.

And as far as "your generation" goes, I feel there is a tremendous amount of talent out there. Unfortunately, current marketing trends have squashed individual creativity in order to sell neat 5- or 6-issue stories in trade paperback form, and also the current practice of the company-wide mega event.

Chris PV said...

Speaking of the ridiculous mega event, have you seen anything about Blackest Night over at DC? Opinions seem to be mixed, at least on the blogs I read. One of the better comments was that Marvel and DC only have two stories anymore, kill everyone alive and resurrect everyone dead. Geoff Johns is trying to beat the trend by doing both at the same time.

There are some good people out there I'm sure, but I've pretty much devoted myself to back issues. I wrote off the X-Men and Avengers with Chuck Austen, wrote off Spider-Man with Sins Past, and wrote off the Fantastic Four when they got dragged into Disassembled. Infinite Crisis killed my interest in DC. So, I've pretty much just been following major developments through the web with a mixture of fascination and horror.

Jack Alberti said...

ASM 133 and 136 were my first two Spidey comics also ... when I read your post I got a chill. weird.

Redartz said...

I had this issue reprinted as a "book and record" set, which of course had the unfortunate feature of leaving you hanging in the middle of a two-part story...

Always thought the Comics Code's prohibitions against monsters were rather odd. Probably true that it stemmed from EC's graphic storytelling. If you think about it, though, there were vampires depicted in comics of this period in Harvey comics ( obviously featuring ghosts and witches, but also occasionally depicting other monstrous types with friendlier dispositions).

Finally, I must agree upon the artwork here. Kane /Romita is a fine combination, seemingly highlighting the strengths of both creators...

david_b said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
david_b said...

Like Chris PV, to me this was the 'Romita Sr heights', the pinnacle shortly after Gwen's death. I LOVE this cover, as it was one of my first Spidey issues I got off the newstand. The Luke Cage fight last ish was also among the most entertaining issues ever.

IMHO, Andru started off alright, perhaps even mimicing Romita Sr a tad, very subtle. But at some point around the mid-140s all the silly animal villains one after each other, those distinctive chins (much like Kane's nostrils..), shotty distribution/newstand availability, not to mention 'bringing Gwen back' got too much for my interests.

All in all, an outstanding Romita issue, with the wonderful JJJ emotional subplot to boot.

Anonymous said...

Gotta love the Kane/Romita Sr. art combo; the best 1-2 punch Spidey art team of all time in my opinion!

- Mike 'who goes there?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

The Prowler said...

I remember having the record but I don't know if I had the book. I had the Spider-Man record, the Conan record and Snoopy V The Red Baron. I had the pry the lid off of my Close and Play so I could play albums.

I think one thing we may all agree on, art preference aside, is the time it took to read comics. The stories, heck, the words, were so dense. As a kid, you were drawn into a pictured story, as an adult, you start to see the layers that many of the writers were weaving in the narrative.

John Jamison was an astronaut, a man that was at the very edge of what science could produce, a man going into space. Yet, cursed by a "moon stone" to become a beast. Was he a victim of magic, or of science gone mad?

And yet again, a "villain" that Spidey was hamstrung in his dealings. He couldn't hurt the son of his boss, no matter how much JJJ may deride him in public, the son couldn't suffer for the sins of his father. The Lizard, The Goblin, The Man-Wolf, how many other characters did Parker have a connection to?

Again, layers, like an onion.

(All night till I blow away, all night till I blow away, I feel alright, I feel alright).

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