I often write that Longbox Graveyard exists in a world where it is always 1978, but regular readers of this blog will know that since October of last year, I’ve been living in the now. Specifically, I’ve been reading and reviewing the sixty-odd titles that made up Marvel Comics’ latest relaunch — the awkwardly-named All-New All-Different Marvel Now!
Given my oft-voice preference for comics of the past, why did I commit to such a sustained sojourn in this current era of high cover prices and convoluted continuity?
Well, I’ll tell you.
It was all about the Treehouse.
My love of comics is bound up in nostalgia and a desire to revisit my lost youth. I expect it is the same for many older fans (and I am on the hard side of fifty). While I genuinely enjoy and appreciate comics from the 1970s, I recognize that many of the reasons I prefer them to more contemporary efforts is rooted in that self-same nostalgia. Certainly, comics today enjoy better printing standards and an overall higher level of artistic execution than the beloved books of my youth … but I still like comics from the 1960s-1980s better than today’s offerings. I always will.
Bronze is Golden
My love of these comics is wrapped up with the life I had in those years — things I’ve touched on over the last five years of this blog, like moving to Hollywood, CA in 1974, and exploring weird old comic shops along the boulevard; meeting Forest J. Ackerman and realizing for the first time that growing old didn’t mean you had to grow up; getting deeply wrapped up with fantasy fiction in general and Conan and John Carter in particular; starting new schools and getting my first girlfriend; moving away from home; starting my own tentative career as a writer and a creator … all those life events are things I associate with comic books, sometimes very specific comic books. When I remember chasing around my backyard in Hollywood, throwing my dad’s sculpting hammer at rocks and trash cans, I also think about Thor and Hercules and Firelord taking on the insane living planet Ego — both those things are equivalently real in my memory, in that long summer of ’74.
Other memories are entirely made up. Like reading comics in a treehouse.
I did have a treehouse at the Hollywood house — more like a tree platform, actually, overlooking a canyon in the Hollywood hills. I used to go up there with my toy Winchester rifle and shoot at imaginary Skrulls, something that once scrambled a police helicopter my way. (This was a high-crime time in Hollywood, and everyone was jumpy, maybe doubly so because that was the summer of the SLA, and the house that the LAPD lit up with 9000 rounds of ammo was only about a dozen miles from my house). I don’t especially remember reading comics in that treehouse, but that doesn’t matter — the idea of comics and childhood and treehouses are all bound up together, and led directly to my dropping several hundred dollars on new Marvel Comics these past few months.
In the middle of 2015 I was in a miserable place. My health wasn’t great, my best friend from my childhood was dying of cancer, and my work was providing little in emotional satisfaction. I still had enthusiasm for comics but my attention was flagging a bit, and I was entertaining the notion of winding down Longbox Graveyard entirely (I mean, I was publishing things like Top 10 Super-Dogs, for crying out loud!). I was so distraught that I decided to medicate myself with whatever felt good, eating everything in site and ballooning up to 250 pounds (don’t panic, I’m back down to 200 now), and also indulging myself in any easy bit of retail therapy that I thought would make me feel better.
fortunately, I am The Blob no longer!
I decided that reading comics in a treehouse would make me feel better. So that’s what I did. Sort of.
Marvel’s All-New All-Different relaunch intrigued me — mostly because I was desperate — and it promised easy fodder for a series of micro-reviews at Longbox Graveyard. So, instead of closing down the blog, I’d force myself to produce daily content through much of the year. With my own original comic — 4 Seconds — coming out (I thought) toward the end of 2015, it also seemed a good idea to familiarize myself with Marvel’s latest output … if I was going to be a comics creator again, then I should know a bit about my field. I resolved to buy all the #1s in the Marvel relaunch.
This was easier said that done.
Marvel solicited the relaunch with a PDF catalogue that laid out the new titles and the new creative teams, but there was no easy way for me to just push a button and get one of everything. I either had to go into a local comics shop and set up a pull list (and I am too lazy for that), or I needed to order them online, but the online options I surveyed didn’t make it easy for me to determine which books were and were not part of the relaunch. After way too much work, I assembled a scratch list of all the books that I thought were part of the relaunch (and this became my review archive, which you can visit here). Armed with this info, I opened an account with Westfield Comics, both because I remembered them from my mail order days in the 1980s, and because they offered a nice deep discount for new customers that took some of the sting out of those Marvel cover prices.
Then I forgot about it. One of the downsides of an outfit like Westfield is you secure those deep discounts by ordering months in advance, which can take some of the heat out of purchases made in the heat of the moment. And the purchase really was made in the heat of the moment, and was more than a little irrational. I’ve made much about getting rid of stuff here at Longbox Graveyard, and now here I was ordering dozens of floppy comics that I would read once and toss (or eBay, I guess). But, darn it, I was in a painful place and I just wanted a box of comics to read in a treehouse with my friends.
So when the box showed up, I rounded up some friends. Billy King, Chris Ulm, and I weren’t friends when we were kids, but it feels like we were. Comics give us a shared memory of youth that was separated by miles and years in actuality. Chris and I have been friends for thirty years, and we have a rich comics history between us, but it has mostly been professional, like when I was writing comics for Chris when he was Editor-In-Chief of Malibu Comics, or when Chris has joined me for podcasts and guest columns at Longbox Graveyard. I haven’t known Billy as long, but we have still been friends for a dozen years, and recently he pitched in with character designs and story architecture for 4 Seconds. The three of us all work together in the mobile games business, and we have lunch hours to kill, so … they were my built-in Treehouse Comics Pals, and the Treehouse itself was a spare conference room at our office, where we’d show up a couple times a week, unpack our lunches, and sort through my big box of new comics.
It was great. The experience, I mean. The comics were OK (and more about them in a moment), but the experience of getting together with my friends, and all of us kind of going back in time to read the same characters we’d loved as kids — that was nice. We’d share the books we thought were good (rarely), or bitch about the things Marvel got wrong (more commonly), or better yet just set aside the darn books and get into geekfights about Marvel’s characters and creators, or maybe we could trigger an Ulm Rant about his Malibu days and the state of the direct market or some unprintable story about the true origins of Image Comics or the Ultraverse. I should have recorded those Treehouse sessions — they would have made a dynamite podcast. But, really, it was the free and easy nature of just showing up and reading comics with friends that made the magic. There were no expectations. And over the period of weeks and months that followed, we read a lot of comics, and I got some of the healing that I needed. Things are better now. I’ve got good and caring friends. They are a blessing.
But how about those comics?
On the most basic level, they did the job. Taken as a whole, the comics of Marvel’s latest relaunch were about what I expected. Maybe a little better than I expected. There weren’t any real lightning bolts in there, but neither were there a lot of outright stinkers. I think I gave about half of the books a “thumb’s up” by saying I’d read a second issue (the only kind of review score I attached to this project). That’s pretty good. The launch was mostly B-level books with a few that might grow into something better, and a couple sad-sack titles that never should have seen the light of day. But every book in the launch had something to offer; I’m glad I read them all, both because of the joy of being in the Treehouse, and because it was educational to take such an in-depth and focused look at the state of Marvel Comics circa 2015-16.
Even after reading all those books, and writing the reviews, and arguing them out in the Treehouse with the guys, there’s still one thing I don’t understand, though.
Just who was the All-New All-Different Marvel Now supposed to reach?
Was it to attract new readers? If so, the initiative failed (and I don’t mean just in terms of sales numbers, which have been pretty soft). No, just looking at this relaunch as a jumping-on point, it earned failing grades. It spun out of a cross-over event (Secret Wars 2) that ran late and wasn’t wrapped up until well after the first wave of relaunch books hit the street, and aside from some of the books referencing some vague cataclysm that came months before, there was no spark or starting gun or anything, really, to mark the start of this new start to the Marvel Universe. Precious few of the books were genuine #1s — in too many cases, readers needed knowledge of prior continuity to make sense of what was happening (and even prior knowledge didn’t always help — I read sixty relaunch titles and never found out what happened to the Fantastic Four, or why Ben Grimm was now part of the Guardians of Galaxy). Looking back over my reviews, you will see where I noted that book after book failed to measure up for new readers. Now, sure, new readers come into ongoing comics series all the time, and figure it out as they go … but Marvel made a point of relaunching everything in their line with new #1s, and I don’t think it is too much to expect that most of these first issues would be actual first issues.
(Except that it was too much to expect).
a comic book Bigfoot, a creature every bit as mythical as a new comics reader
Was this relaunch intended to reactivate Marvel’s existing base? Maybe, but if so … it may have done more harm than good. Save from temporarily goosing the sales of some series, this relaunch doesn’t seem to have fired up the readership in any meaningful way. The relaunch didn’t create a breakout hit, and sales numbers have largely returned to pre-relaunch levels. Renumbering and relaunching is risky, as fans might as easily see it as a jumping-OFF point as a place to jump on. Renumbering ongoing series that were only in their first year (like Squirrel Girl) seemed especially unwise.
guilty as charged
Maybe the relaunch was intended to attract mainstream Marvel movie and TV fans? After all, the Avengers movie franchise is the biggest thing in the world, while the comic is lucky to sell 100K copies — theoretically there are a lot of movie fans out there who might be interested in reading a Marvel comic. But, no … while this comics line had a S.H.I.E.L.D. book that TV fans might recognize, too much was scrambled up and significantly at odds with the movie take on these characters to welcome movie fans as new readers. The All-New All-Different Marvel Now has female Thors and Wolverines; dozens of Spider-Men (and the only one of them that was Peter Parker was nearly unrecognizable as such); an old man wearing Captain America’s costume (and another geezer swinging Wolverine’s claws). There were several Inhumans books, but none for the Fantastic Four. Jessica Jones was on Netflix but nowhere to be found in the relaunch. The Avengers lineups (across all the many Avengers books) didn’t map to the canonical characters so popularly portrayed in the films. Some of these ideas worked fine in the context of comics, but they did nothing to roll out the welcome matt for film fans. Quite the opposite.
my son at the Marvel Movie Marathon several years ago … and he still doesn’t want to read comics!
Was this relaunch intended to bring back lapsed fans? Well, it did get me to buy several boxes of comics, but I was emotionally wounded and kind of in a unique situation. Neither Chris nor Billy, my Treehouse pals, were monthly Marvel readers before this relaunch, and they really haven’t changed their position. Chris may collect a few of these books in trade (something he was doing anyway), and Billy plans to collect a (very) few books up through issue ten or so, but after that, he’s out. For my part, I’m not buying any #2s, though I might catch up with a few of the series as Billy brings them in, or when they spool up on my Marvel Unlimited digital subscription service. But I have zero enthusiasm to keep up with any of these books on a monthly basis.
At best, mixed results in this area.
those kids are out there, someplace, and all grown up, too!
So if this relaunch wasn’t aimed at new readers — or even old readers — and if it didn’t drive movie fans to check out the comics, and if it didn’t drive new readers into comic shops to open up new pull lists, then why blow everything up and relaunch at all? Was it just for the sales bump? If so, it’s kind of like that Daffy Duck trick, where he blows himself up on stage. It wins the contest with Bugs Bunny, but what do you do for an encore?
(A rhetorical question, I know. We can look forward to more events and relaunches and renumbering and etc. and etc. until the business stabilizes or the last fan goes to that big longbox in the sky … but that’s a subject for a different article).
Coming out the other side of the relaunch, I do have a firm idea of what I want from Marvel Comics, though. Not that I expect Marvel to do this, but if I had magic powers, I would want a Marvel where there were fewer books but higher quality; with stories that are complete in one volume; about characters that I recognize that don’t invalidate most of what I remember about them from the Silver and Bronze Ages; with enough continuity that the stories fit together without collapsing under the weight of ridiculous trivia; provided in a format that was easy to buy and collect without making it my part-time job to scour the solicitations and place blind orders months in advance with no clear idea of what was and was not part of the relaunch or event I was trying to follow; and I want the stories to have broad enough appeal that I could share them not just with my Treehouse pals, but also with my wife and my kids and just regular friends who don’t sleep, breathe, and eat comics all the time.
It will never happen.
Except, actually, that it has.
It’s called the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
My sad realization after reading all these Marvel Comics is that the Marvel Comics I most want to read are the Marvel Movies. They hit every criteria I noted above … I get two or three movies a year, maybe a TV series, all of pretty good (sometimes great) quality, and they are major pop culture events that I can share with pretty much everyone in my life. They are the characters I know and love made fresh with contemporary interpretations that keep the best stuff from the past while ignoring the nonsense and serving up familiar surprises about what comes next.
And so for me, the future of Marvel Comics isn’t comics at all! At least, it isn’t contemporary comics … I will still go back to 1978 for a comics fix now and then. But these latest books? Good, but not good enough to change my habits. So it goes.
Ah, but … what about DC Comics, you ask? Aren’t they about to relaunch on their own, with a “Rebirth” event that will make the New 52 old news?
Well, yes they are. And it just so happens that I’ve ordered the first wave of those books, because I want the Treehouse to continue. One way or the other, I’ll be reading thirty-odd DC books this summer, and maybe more if I like what I see in the first wave.
The question for you, dear reader, is should I review DC’s Rebirth the same way I did Marvel’s All-New All-Whatever Blah Blah Blah?
Vote in my poll, below!
Thanks for reading, voting, and (I hope) commenting below. I consider all the many online friends I’ve made through Longbox Graveyard, both here on the blog and through Twitter, to be part of my extended Treehouse family, and nothing would please me more than shooting the breeze while reading a box of comics with all of you. Since I can’t do that, this blog has been the next best thing, and I will keep it going awhile longer whether I review the DC books or not. But please cast a vote, to guide me in what I should do next at Longbox Graveyard … and I will see you in the Treehouse!
NEXT MONTH: #159 Fire And Water: Human Torch vs Sub-Mariner!
This past week saw my semi-annual family outing to Disneyland, in honor of my oldest boy’s seventeenth birthday.
(If your seventeen-year-old consents to going to Disneyland with you, the only response is “yes.” This may well be the last time I enjoy Disneyland with my boy).
We had the usual time — it was a good day — and it was relaxed enough that we visited some out-of-the-way corners of the park, including the Marvel attractions that have been shoehorned in to the “Innoventions” pavilion … a kind of spare-parts collection on the rump side of Tomorrowland, occupying a building that hasn’t quite had a purpose since America Sings packed it in back in 1988. Now it’s full of Microsoft stuff and … of interest to me … artifacts from Marvel’s recent movies.
Front and center was the Iron Man Hall of Armor.
I’d seen these suits when they made the tour at San Diego Comic-Con, but it was nice to get close to them in the sparsely-attended exhibit. There was a motion-capture gimmick where you could stand in line and seem to “suit up” in the armor on a large view screen. My boy started listing the obscene gestures he’d make were he to get on camera, so rather than have security tackle him, I contented myself with snapping an illicit photo of The Flash inside Tony Stark’s holy of holies and hustled everyone onto the next display …
… which was the Treasures of Asgard throne room.
From the outside, it looked like a short line-up to view various props from the movies. I remembered the big Asgard throne from Comic-Con a couple years ago, so I figured it was worth checking it out for my family, who liked the film.
Turns out that behind the doors were more prop exhibits and a little show. The voice of Anthony Hopkins gave us a potted history of Asgard and Midgard* (*Midgard = Earth), then a mole fogger and some disco light whisked us away to the Realm Eternal.
Yes … at the end of our Rainbow Bridge was one of those awkward autograph encounters with a Disney princess, but in this case the princess was a kid in a Thor suit (who did a fine job, but still — awkward). We snuck out while he was signing autographs for a couple kids who seemed convinced that they’d really gone to Asgard.
Overall, Marvel has little presence at Disneyland. It feels a bit like the characters are sleeping on the couch. But from little things do mighty exhibits grow, and Disney has a tradition of repurposing film props as attractions (in fact, one of the original “rides” when Disneyland opened in 1955 was a walk-through of sets from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). In time I expect we’ll be able to experience Marvel rides at Disneyland, just as you can presently adventure along with Indiana Jones and Star Wars/Star Tours. My preference would be for Disneyland to level the nostalgic-but-underutilized Tom Sawyer’s Island and replace it with Marvel’s Manhattan.
In the meantime, Flash got to photobomb Odin’s throne room.
The Christmas season is traditionally a slow time for newsstand comic book sales, so you can’t blame Marvel Comics for trying to create some holiday cheer with with their 1975 Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag … but would it have killed them to hunt up some actual holiday-themed stories for their holiday-themed collection? “Marvel’s Yuletide Gift To YOU!” turns out to be a lump of coal!
It starts well enough, with a genuine grab-bag of superheroes hanging stockings by the chimney with care. Luke Cage thoughtfully drapes the tree with chains, but I’m not sure which is more disturbing — that the Hulk must have mugged a plus-sized Santa to get that St. Nicholas suit, or that Nick Fury thinks its appropriate to attend a tree-trimming in a bondage costume.
It’s a charming bit of hokum, and it appeals to me now just as it did in 1975, when I bought this book off the rack. As a thirteen-year-old I appreciated anything that connected my comic book world with the spirit of the season, and I especially enjoyed those monthly books that included Christmas content in their December issues (especially considering that the teams must have been sweating out a New York summer when they first created those pages). But if my regular comics adventures couldn’t manage some snow and mistletoe, then a big holiday reprint collection was the next best thing.
And I do mean big. This Holiday Grab-Bag was a part of the Marvel Treasury Edition series — a big, over-sized, 10″ x 13″ edition (and for more about Marvel’s Treasury Editions, check out the spectacular TreasuryComics.com). That means this Grab-Bag wasn’t the usual Marvel reprint — it was a double-sized reprint, providing an unusual opportunity for Marvel fans to see their favorite characters big, blown-up, and beautiful.
So why oh why does Marvel lead this edition with a story penciled by Frank Springer?
Actually, as Frank Springer goes, this tale isn’t bad. Originally appearing in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #10, ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” shows some ambition, starting with a typographic splash page in the Will Eisner/Jim Steranko tradition.
Nick foils a street crime, then hustles home for some real sixties spy action …
This is a Nick Fury comic, so the mushy stuff doesn’t last long, and before you know it Nick is called away by S.H.I.E.L.D. to battle Hate Monger (née Adolph Hitler) on the edge of space, foiling a plot that involves germ warfare, an atomic bomb, and (just maybe) Santa’s sleigh!
But it’s all in a night’s work for S.H.I.E.L.D.’ top cop … and even more impressive is that ol’ Nick doesn’t miss a beat when he returns home to find his paramour (whatever her name might be) still in her Christmas Eve party dress. Hey, there’s a reason we named Nick Fury the manliest character in all of superhero comics!
I’ve made the story seem better than it reads. This is a pretty by-the-numbers Nick Fury tale, the best part of which may have been the original cover, which sadly appears only in black & white on the inside back cover of this Grab-Bag Treasury Edition:
It’s a silly tale with a poor conclusion and it doesn’t do Frank Springer any favors showing his art at this expanded size. But you know, compared to the stories that follow, this tale looks like The Great Gatsby.
Take the next tale, for example — a reprint of “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” from Amazing Spider-Man #24. This is a great Spider-Man story — maybe my favorite single-issue story from the unmatched Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run on Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man is attacked where he is most vulnerable by a mystery villain — directly in his neurosis, triggering a near-psychotic experience and a genuine crisis of confidence for Web-Head.
The only problem is this story has nothing to do with the holidays (aside from the part about losing your mind). I looked in vain for a street Santa or a wreath or a menorah or even a throw-away line referencing the time of year but no luck — this is a seasonally-neutral superhero tale. Treasury-sized Steve Ditko is always welcome (and I’ve devoted an entire post just to blowing up Mr. Ditko’s Spider-Man panels), but however much I like this story, it’s a peculiar inclusion for a holiday collection. (And a question for Spider-Man scholars — was there a worthy pre-1976 Spider-Man holiday story that might have better served here?)
The holiday returns (though the quality does not) in the next tale, reprinting “Jingle Bombs” by Steve Englehart and George Tuska from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #7. Sadly, Luke does not decorate Christmas trees with his belt-chain, as he does on this collection’s cover, but this story does have Luke doing what he does, with a holiday twist, like making out in the snow with his foxy girlfriend:
The plot is a muddle, with Luke bedeviled by some quick-changing knucklehead who tests our hero with moral dilemmas before ultimately threatening to blow up New York with an atomic bomb. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and as was the case with Mr. Springer, George Tuska doesn’t immediately leap to mind when listing the Marvel artists I’d like to see in double-size format.
But this tale does get points for being a holiday story — there’s even a Santa Claus in it. There are also some vintage Luke Cage moments, like his quasi-hippy rant over “Freakin’ GUNS!” …
… and Luke’s out-loud reference to the day they lay pennies on his eyes …
Overall, this story is just a little bit better than the Nick Fury issue that leads this collection. It’s full of snow and Santas and it is neither very much better or very much worse than other Luke Cage stories of the era.
Except for one problem (and it’s a big one).
How can we get through an entire issue of vintage Luke Cage — a Christmas issue, especially — without Luke exclaiming, “Christmas!” ??
It’s just not right.
NOT from the Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag
At least there’s snow on the ground in Luke Cage’s story — something that can’t be said for the next story, “Heaven Is A Very Small Place,” from Incredible Hulk #147 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe.
This story looks great in the expanded Treasury format, with Trimpe’s pencils softened by the skillful sable brush of John Severin.
This is a short, nine-page story with the Hulk coming to the usual heartbreak in the illusory town of his dreams. It’s thin on supervillains and smashing but it is a well-told and heartfelt story. Again, the problem here is that this is not a holiday tale. It’s too much to expect snow in a desert mirage town, but there isn’t even a hint of Hanuka here. If you squint just right I suppose there’s an echo of It’s A Wonderful Life on display but with none of that classic tale’s uplifting reason-for-the-season message.
It isn’t spoiling much to reveal that the Hulk feels safe and at home in his idyllic hometown-of-the-mind, before it is all yanked away from him. That’s the way it had to be, because this is an early 1970s Hulk story …
… and because nothing says “Christmas” like a tormented man-brute!
Our Giant Superhero Holiday Treasury Edition has been a (mixed) Grab-Bag so far, and it’s all down to the fifth story — “Eternity” from Doctor Strange #180 by Roy Thomas & Gene Colan — to determine if our collection will ultimately prove naughty, or nice. And there is some cause for optimism here. These Gene Colan/Tom Palmer pages look as spectacular as you would expect in this expanded format, and the tale nails it’s holiday bona fides early as Strange and the lovely Clea hook up for a New Years Eve date.
The story unwinds at a languid pace, offering touching insight on Strange & Clea’s relationship. For for a panel or two, this story is as snuggly and seasonal as a Norah Ephron rom-com.
I award bonus points for a Times Square New Years Eve reference …
… and BONUS bonus points for the inevitable supervillain attack taking the form of a rampaging T-Rex!
Alas, it all ends in tears.
First, there’s the unfortunate fact of Doctor Strange’s costume, dating from that forgettable era when Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme wore a full-face mask to conceal his identity from extra-dimensional, mind-reading alien gods. Of Marvel’s many costume-revision gaffes, putting Doctor Strange in a ski-mask ranks second only to giving Iron Man a nose.
Second … this tale ends in the middle! No sooner does the Big Bad stride into Times Square than we get this lame denouement telling us that the Marvel Bullpen wishes us a swell time and get the hell out, kid, you’re out of pages even if the story is just getting started!
And so the Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag turns out to be a lump of coal after all — a haphazard, thrown-together box of parts that don’t fit, comprised of stories with no business being in a holiday anthology and a New Years Eve tale that makes us go home right when the clock strikes midnight!
But, you know … when it comes to gifts, it is the thought that counts, and there is that great front cover, and the back cover isn’t too shabby either …
… and shucks, there’s Santa Claus waving at us, and even the Hulk is smiling. Having just torn this collection apart, I still get a warm feeling when thinking about this book — maybe because it transports me back to a simpler time when it was just cool to have superhero friends for the holidays. After all, in 1975 you couldn’t walk into a book store and find row after row of graphic novels or superhero movie tie-ins. These geek ways were held more closely then, and we were happy with what we got, whether it was Hulk in a Santa suit, Doctor Strange in a body sock, or just a collection of moldy old Marvel superhero stories to read under the tree. They don’t all have to be books for the ages.
And so I am content with this “Merry-Marvel Season’s Greetings To One And All!” … and please accept Longbox Graveyard’s greetings, wherever you may be this holiday season. Be peaceful to each other, and thank you for reading this blog, on Christmas and every other day of the year!
Since these funnybooks we all love have grown into multi-billion dollar film and television franchises it’s only natural to start thinking about which of our favorite heroes will next appear on the silver screen. Marvel has already worked through their “A” and “B” characters and seem ready to greenlight anything in tights these days (Ant Man? Guardians of the Galaxy?), so to assist our friends at the House of Ideas I’m inaugurating a new feature here at Longbox Graveyard — Superhero Greenlight, where we pitch film takes for superheroes that don’t yet have a date with box office glory!
Joining me in the smoke-filled star chamber are my old comrades-in-comic-book-crime, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason, both dudes with deep roots in the intellectual property business, and both shameless fanboys still carrying a torch for the adventures of men (and women) who wear their primary-colored underwear on the outside. For this first Superhero Greenlight it’s my job to pitch my take on a comic book property for film, and the guys either buoy it up or shoot it down.
After due consideration, I’m offering up …
… Doctor Strange, earth’s Sorcerer Supreme!
Co-created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and making his first appearance in Strange Tales #110 (cover dated July 1963), Doctor Strange is a master of the mystic arts, doing battle in far-flung dimensions to protect the earth from demons and supernatural beings intent on destroying mankind. Doctor Strange might be the last great Marvel Silver Age superhero who hasn’t yet had a meaningful screen presence. Aside from a couple animated appearances, a one-and-done TV movie in 1978, and the Doctor-Strange-By-Any-Other-Name film Doctor Mordrid from Full Moon Features in 1992, Doctor Strange has been an unknown quantity outside of comic books.
He’s one of my favorite characters — I reviewed his Strange Tales run here, and I spotlighted the strange faces of Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange here — but Strange is a difficult character to do right. His own book hasn’t always worked, though you can see some of the better attempts over at Mars Will Send No More. Wedging Strange into the superhero-filled Manhattan of Marvel Comics sometimes feels forced — Strange seems to work best when in his own little corner of the superhero world, battling things unseen by the rest of his four-colored brethren (and no less a luminary than Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin seems to agree, based on his own informal take for this character).
Brilliant surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange has it all — wealth, fame, fortune, and fatal hubris. When his drunk driving injures his beloved Clea in a car crash, Strange insists on performing the operation that can save her life himself; when his fiancee dies on the table, Strange loses his reputation, his license, and his soul in one fell swoop. Now he searches the world for a teacher that will let him rescue Clea from the spirit world, and is caught up in a diabolical web of black magic, demons, secret sorcerers, and an extra-dimensional dark god that threatens to possess Strange … and through him conquer earth itself!
Casting: Johnny Depp is my A-list first choice, but there are a host of actors appropriate for the role — including fellow A-Lister Leonardo DiCaprio, the always-reliable Guy Pearce, ready-to-blow-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or how how about … wait for it, baby birds … Daniel Radcliffe as a grown-up sorcerer supreme?
TOM: Okay, I’m in. I like your pitch and I think Depp would make a great Doctor Strange — not too young, not too old, and a reputation for playing characters full of quirkiness with some comedy (that the ol’ Doc desperately needs). Your other choices would be good too, but I think Depp could actually bring people into the theater. Iron Man is one of the lesser known Marvel characters to the general public, but Robert Downey Jr. was the draw that made that movie. Dr. Strange is even lesser known than Iron Man, and you need an actor like Depp who can open a certain kind of movie.
Iron Man & Doctor Strange, together again for the first time
PAUL: Depp couldn’t draw flies for Dark Shadows this summer but I’m putting that down to the public’s exhaustion with these Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic fetish pictures. Disney thinks Depp still has enough mojo to throw buckets of cash at Depp as Tonto in next year’s very dubious-looking Lone Ranger so I’m going to assume Depp’s star is undiminished and that he’d be key to making Dr. Strange work. At the same time, I’m going to let Burton sit this one out and go with whatever director Marvel pulls off the bench — they’ve had good luck with matching television and film auteurs with their superhero properties and I expect for a superhero picture they’d want a hungry director they could keep on a short leash in any case.
Here’s why I think Doctor Strange would work — it’s a supernatural picture with a streak of humility, humor, and romance for the date night crowd. I pitch this as a summer effects thrill ride perfect for the Ghostbusters and Men in Black audience. The underpinnings of loss, love, and spiritual longing give the movie just enough grit to feel substantial and anchoring events in the now-understood Marvel cinematic universe will let audiences quickly accept the larger-than-life monsters and (subtly) costumed characters at the heart of the story. Just as Iron Man had huge upside hidden by a black hole of a character at the center in Tony Stark, so too will the reinvention of Stephen Strange unlock one of comicdom’s richest visual properties for the silver screen!
ULM: One word on the Doctor Strange pitch — SOLD! The high concept pitch and the character arc are great — arrogant bastard learns wisdom. You’ve definitely built a very strong premise and a hero we can identify with. Throw in some humor (Doctor Strange should be the last human on earth to believe in magic) and a strong supporting cast (who plays Wong?) and I think you have a potential Thor-sized hit. Casting is great — I think all the choices you listed would work.
PAUL: A possibility for Wong is to cast him as an action hero — he’d be Strange’s servant and student, but he’s also a young, physical dude with immense strength or martial skills that contrast with Strange’s cerebral abilities. For comic relief, he could also be the world’s worst butler — maybe he’s clumsy and always dropping things, maybe he’s rude, or maybe he just brews the world’s most horrid tea but everyone (even Strange) is afraid to say anything because he’s such a glowering physical presence.
TOM: I like the idea of Strange trying to revive the love of his life, but two things stick out for me — first, we probably won’t get enough of Clea on screen pre-threat for us to believe in the couple’s love for each other so his quest runs the risk of not being emotionally involving. And second, if too much of the movie takes place in the weird mystical world I think the audience will tune out. It seems that most super-hero movies function better if the big action set pieces are set on Earth. The parts of Green Lantern that were the least interesting were the ones where Hal Jordan was on some distant planet.
PAUL: We might be able to communicate Strange’s love for Clea if he spends part of the first act coming out of some kind of traumatic mental or emotional melt-down, putting the pieces together for himself even as the audience comes to understand what happened. I’m reminded of how Sela Ward had only a few minutes on screen in the movie version of The Fugitive yet her presence and murder were still keenly felt.
The concerns about the story’s otherworldliness are legitimate. I think the most difficult tightrope that Thor walked was integrating action in Asgard with events on earth. I think we need to have at least one big scene where Doctor Strange visits that ropey, Ditko “otherverse” with off-kilter doorframes and pathways stretching off into the void, but for the most part I think the action should be set in the shadows of our own world, building on the idea of other realities infringing on our own (which audiences have already come to accept thanks to the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises).
the classic Ditko “otherverse”
ULM: The other missing ingredient: a villain that isn’t incredibly stupid. The villain needs to be two things: relatable and understandable. Perhaps it is an old rival of Strange — maybe somehow related to Clea (brother, former lover, sister, etc). Someone who cannot and will not forgive Strange for Clea’s death. Perhaps this character is possessed by the Dread Dormammu and is able to finally wreak vengeance …
PAUL: Strange’s great rival was Baron Mordo, who was also a student of Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One (and now I recognize I’ve cut that character from my pitch, though I suppose Strange will encounter him when he goes on his second-act road of trials, and becomes the sorcerer supreme). I like that Strange’s rival might have been part of a romantic triangle with Strange and Clea — we could also make him a surgeon, maybe better qualified to save Clea than Strange, but Strange pulls rank to perform the operation himself, losing a love and gaining a nemesis at the same time. Maybe the rival turns to the black arts to raise Clea from the dead, crosses lines our hero will not cross, and is possessed by demons or otherwise becomes the Big Bad. Or maybe the rival is a touchy-feely type who could have saved Clea with some tinfoil hat remedy that Strange foolishly discounted.
TOM: I think you can unfold the story in real time without too many flashbacks.
When Stephen was a kid, he had the powers and the Eye of Agamotto and while experimenting with it, he inadvertently pissed off the dreaded Dormammu. Dormammu wanted the Eye but Strange was clever enough to hide it in another dimension, denying Dormammu. Enraged, Dormammu responded by killing Strange’s family, wiping out his hometown and leaving Strange for dead.
But Strange survived, vowing never to use the Eye again and to use his powers to atone for the damage he caused earlier.
PAUL: I like that Strange could have had a personal supernatural experience when he was younger, but has denied it or blocked it out. Maybe he made some conscious decision to be a man of science, turning his back on magic, making him a character with an internal conflict between his head and his heart. We could even tie this to some (wrong) decision he made while Clea was on the table, trusting the book (his head) over what his instincts were telling him to do, whether it was some risky, House M.D.-like procedure or even refusing to trust his rival to do a better job with Clea than he could.
TOM: Cut to: It’s now the present day in NYC. He’s an adult now, a medical doctor, working at the hospital (he seems to keep moving; this is hardly his first job), helping others, but finds the city is inspiring him, his relationship with Clea is growing, but there’s evil afoot — assorted demons and dimensional troublemakers keep popping up wreaking havoc and Strange must summon his long-dormant powers again in order to defeat them. (Think Ghostbusters, as the ghosts get progressively worse). It’s all part of a plan by Dormammu who has been searching for the Eye for years but finally discovered that Strange was alive and has plotted to get him to use the Eye again so that he can take if from him once and for all.
PAUL: It feels a bit like Sauron looking for the One Ring, but that’s not a bad thing — audiences understand that story.
TOM: So with demons pushing him around NYC, and Dormammu threatening Clea, Strange is left with a choice: recover and use the Eye that he’s long since sworn to never do again or lose everything he’s tried to build since he was a child. This way, when there are giant-sized third act fights of sorcery, Doc must confront his personal demons while fighting some real ones across mid-town.
PAUL: Making recovery of the Eye and/or seeking out the Ancient One does give some direction and shape to our second act. The Ancient One is the classic mission giver/wise old man figure, and it would make perfect sense for him to award the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation to Strange after our hero completes the requisite montage and has his Moment of Enlightenment … but, sheesh, I’ve bored myself just talking about these things! I think the second act needs a judo flip.
the Ancient One, by Steve Ditko
TOM: I think one of the things you can do to flip it may not be the second act, but in the final act. Strange gives up the eye in exchange for Clea, then once assuring her safety, he has to go up against Dormammu who now possesses the power of the Eye and isn’t afraid to use it. And he starts by incapacitating the Ancient One and then sets about destroying everything Strange holds dear.
Now Strange has to fight, calling forth all his power, even stuff he blocked out from his childhood experience. And now the flip: Clea isn’t just “the girlfriend.” I don’t know enough about Doctor Strange continuity to care and I have no interest in the movie following lockstep with Marvel continuity, but it seems like it would be fun to make Clea more than we think — perhaps connected to the Ancient One, or someone else.
PAUL: In Clea’s first Ditko/Lee Strange Tales appearances she is deeply connected to Dormammu. He turns out to be her uncle or something.
Clea and Dormammu, by Steve Ditko
TOM: And she didn’t just happen to be at the hospital when Strange showed up for work — she was there to watch over him or something like that. Maybe she even has connections to his past in some way.
If you remember The Mummy, the Medjai are tasked with guarding the sarcophagus of Imhotep. Maybe Clea has a similar role with regard to the Eye?
PAUL: Now I’m all turned around. I thought I understood my pitch when I came in here, but now I’ve got a lot of parts that don’t fit.
ULM: What do you expect? This is Hollywood, baby! You’ve got to think like an executive! Don’t sweat the small stuff … hire some writer to put the pieces together, and if you don’t like what he gives you, claim he’s ruined your vision and fire the poor bastard.
TOM: And after you’ve hired a writer to clean up your mess, there’s only one thing left to do.
PAUL: What’s that?
ULM & TOM: Lunch!!
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