Wednesday, 25 January 2012

On Mark Waid's Spider-man/Daredevil Crossover

In which the blogger returns to the question of how reader-friendly the mainstream's super-books are, and asks how welcoming and entertaining are the first few pages of several recent comics;
        
       
Folks who dismiss the very idea of today's superhero books being anything other than market-pandering pap are going to have to explain away the excellence of the work of Mark Waid and his collaborators on this month's crossover between Daredevil and the Amazing Spider-Man. For The Devil And The Details Part 1 is a considerable pleasure even if, like me, your fondness for Spider-Man has been worn away over time by reboots and stunt marketing and the decision to make Peter Parker a rather unlikeable twenty-something nebbish rather than one of the world's unluckiest adolescents. (*1) Yet, whatever my reservations, Waid's work here is a wonder, as technically sound as it's heartfelt and involving. Any reader new to The Amazing Spider-Man with issue #677, for example, is going to have not the slightest problem getting up to speed with the spine of the relevant back-story before the second page is over. Even the text introduction, in the form of a Daily Bugle tabloid front-page, is so smartly constructed that it establishes not just the essential plot-points for what's to come, but the fundamental theme of romantic loss and gain that's at the core of these two issues.Whether it was put together by Waid himself or the editorial office is almost beside the point, for what most counts here is that everybody that's on the team is doing the job that's expected of them, and doing it well too.

*1:- The last is the decision of Spider-Man's regular writer Dan Slott, but the other far more alienating decisions weren't. My own tastes for the characterisation of Parker aside, I have a great deal of respect for Mr Slott's work on Spider-Man, as I've expressed on this blog before. To praise Mr Waid is not meant to be read as any criticism of Mr Slott at all.
         

The very first page of Emma Rios's art for Amazing Spider-Man #677 is an example of modern-era comics storytelling at its best, delivering the sense as well as the facts of Peter Parker's romantic woes in a way that's as funny as it's undoubtedly touching too. Life really does conspire to emphasise misery when a significant other's off being significant elsewhere, and the panels of Parker wandering past streets of embracing, loving couples and adoring breakfast-cereal families raise uncomfortable memories as well as painful chuckles for this reader. The scene-setting collaboration of writer and artist here is entirely successful, with Waid trusting to his colleague to show us Parker's misery without the need for any excess of internal monologue or unlikely soliloquy. "Where is Doctor Octopus when you need him?", Parker asks himself as he passes by a crowded-shop front bearing a sign declaring "Two for One", and that authentic mix of quippery and unhappiness grounds what's to come in character before the super-heroics arrive.

       
By establishing his intentions with that authentic Parker-esque tone that's part wisecrack and part despair, Waid has the reader snared, caring and page-turning before any skin-tight costume is to be seen. The temptation to kick off each half of this crossover with yet another spectacle of yet another superhero performing yet another superfeat is one which Waid conspicuously avoids. And so, even with a cliffhanger involving buried-alive super-people to resolve in Daredevil #8, Waid tellingly begins his second chapter with a costumeless and intriguing scene involving loyal Foggy Nelson at his most Dr Watson-esque and the grave of Matt Murdock's father. It's easy, after all, to skip over yet another moment of book-opening jeopardy through fisti-cuffs, but it's hard not to pay attention when the real hero of the book is resolutely investigating the matter of what might have happened to the body of Battlin' Jack Murdock.

        
Waid's super-people are always individuals before they're crime-fighters, and for all the fun of the roof-running and the holographic illusions, it's the moments of betrayal and sadness and self-deception which stay with the reader after the comics have been put away. Parker catching sight of his unValentine's Day becoming all the more desperately bleak, and declaring that "this is my super-villain origin"; Foggy Nelson's stoic dauntlessness in his search for the truth; Murdock's capacity to appear to be thinking clearly when he's also being driven by far less rational motivations; these are the moments that ensure that readers will return next month to Mr Waid's titles.

        
Waid works as successfully with the artist Kano in the concluding part of The Devil And The Details as he does with Rios in chapter 1. In fact, the creative team on Daredevil #8 manage to pull off the trick of producing a conclusion to their particular chapter which works perfectly well for the reader who's read nothing of the story's opening twenty pages. Both comics are triumphs, and they beg the question of why it is that Waid's achievements are matched by so few of his colleagues. Any fool can construct a comic-book out of shock and a mass of panel-shy money-shots, empty-hearted fireworks and event marketing. But it takes years if not decades of study and endless practise to ensure that a story such as The Devil And The Details appears to be an effortless as it is entirely satisfying. How inspiring it is, to be able to feel certain that Mark Waid's very best work is being done in the here and now, and that he's neither joined the ranks of the burnt up or the gently fading away.

        
It's worth noting what each of these comics don't contain. No sell-it-on-the-secondhand-market double-page spreads. No arbitrarily placed pin-ups. No hollow by-the-numbers spectacle. No obsession with a world of superheroes existing entirely separate from a more typically human one. No stroke-friendly objectification. No careless politics or ethical indulgences, no reliance on inter-textuality to add value to a third-rate story. No melodramatic excesses. No grittiness and grimness that doesn't come attached to a narrative powered also by compassion and wit. No read-it-in-a-minute stories, no mind-wearying sense of the terminally over-familiar, no witless collage of one dullheaded punch-up after another. No generic backgrounds, no I'm-getting-paid-to-doodle indulgences, no purposeless parade of horizontal panels.

          
Yet if I were compelled by conscience to mention any limitations of the work, then I might suggest that Amazing Spider-Man #677 contains one side-consuming, plot-light action shot too many for a book of so relatively few pages, and that it also isn't precisely clear in a single panel why the camera of an amateur paparazzi has slipped from his hands when faced with the Black Cat's hyper-lucky powers. In other words, both parts of The Devil & The Details are remarkably well-wrought comicbooks, with their opening, reader-grabbing sequences standing as textbook examples of the craft.

 

All pop art traditions are eventually replaced by what seem to be more attractive, and usually more energetic, storytelling forms. But there always comes a time when the core values of what once seemed staid and gravebound begin to seem revolutionary in themselves once again. For all that the creators of The Devil & The Detail have been smartly influenced by the kineticism of what's happened in comics storytelling since the high summer of Image Comics, their work here is fundamentally rooted in the traditional values of clarity and density, emotion and cleverness. In pushing aside the degeneration of the superhero book into thin parodies of the once-innovations of the "widescreen" and "deconstruction", Waid and his colleagues have succeeded in embarrassing the efforts of so many editors and creators who've rejected the hard work for the easy effects, and who've succeeded only in generating their own pay checks while running the sub-genre into and almost under the ground.


Next: DC's Bird Of Prey # 5.

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13 comments:

  1. Your blog continues to be a pleasure to read. I have also gotten really burned with comics on the ridiculous retcons and also the bait and switch to the customer. I think Marvel has ton a terrible job with this.

    Thanks for getting my interest picqued again. I'll be checking out Daredevil.

    I actually prefer a married Spider-Man to a single one. It's all about the writing, not character regression. Ultimate was supposed to be about the teenage spider-man vs adult one. I think they mucked up that one too.

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  2. "Folks who dismiss the very idea of today's superhero books being anything other than market-pandering pap are going to have to explain away the excellence of the work of Mark Waid and his collaborators on this month's crossover between Daredevil and the Amazing Spider-Man."

    As you know, Colin, I'm one of those dismissive folks...and, you've almost convinced me I should be reading this. Almost, but it's not YOUR fault I won't be - it's mine. I'm just afraid I'm sooooo far out of the loop when it comes to both of these characters that the writing will hardly be as impacting as you make it out to be, because I have no idea what journeys they've been on in the last 10-15 years to get to this point. Shame, but as always, I'll take your word for it.

    Funny, because once upon a time when I did read superhero comics (and Spidey was the last superhero I gave up) I always considered DareDevil "a poor man's Spiderman". His was a comic that I'd pick up if I was bored and had already read all the other comics on the supermarket rack (remember those days?) that month. I always enjoyed his stories when I read them, but they always felt second-rate. Later I realized that DD was a title Marvel seemed to use to nurture new talent and/or allow up and comers to experiment with. I'm sure rereading those mid-to-late 80s and early 90s issue would be a revelation nowadays.

    Cheers for another entertaining write-up, Colin!

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  3. Hello Eric:- Thank you for the kind words. They are much appreciated. And I do know what you mean, as I'm sure is obvious, about the retcons and events. The lack of understanding on the part of the Big Two concerning their own audience is sometimes quite staggering. And of course that would leave anyone believing that there's no point in keeping up with changes which are unconvincing in the first place. Yet I do beleve that these two books sidestep - and here I know I sound I'm over-egging the point - All of those problems. These are entirely transparent and enjoyable books. They're not "my" Spider-Man or Daredevil, but if this degree of excellance is maintained, that "my" own pantheon will just have to shuffle over and accept the newer arrivals.

    I too preferred a married Spider-Man, though I remain convinced that Peter Parker should always be a 15 year. Yet at the same time I fully accept that that's neither feasible nor likely. I hope that you'll enjoy Waid's Spidey when and if you run into him. And as I say, Slott's work has regularly been very good too. Even when it's not to my taste, I never regret reading it.

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  4. Hello Matthew:- That's a lovely thing for you to say, Matthew, for I know how resistant you are to spending any time with the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade. And I wouldn't suggest that you break with your own traditions; in fact, it's ME that's been checking out some of your own interests in the s'n's back-catalogue recently. However, I would assure you that you can't be "out of the loop" with these issues. They are entirely transparent and you're given all you need.

    I do know what you mean about DD's status as a second Spider-Man. It's something which I always feel whenever DD falls into one of his recurrent slumps. But then, that's how the character started out, in many ways. Yet in the hands of his best creators, as of course you'll know, he's very much his own super-person. I think Waid's DD is going to stand comparison with the very best of the character's past. It would be heartening to know that we might get two or three years of MW's work on the character before he moves on.

    Thanks for the kind words. You're very welcome, as you always are.

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  5. If you'll forgive a One More Day rant, Colin (and from a Spidey non-fan, no less), I don't think you can call Dan Slott writing Peter Parker as "unlikeable" a conscious decision as much as it is a consequence of the property returning to the more recogniseable Spidey status quo - something entirely out of Slott's hands. A twentysomething singleton paparazzo with money and girl troubles is less a superhero secret identity than it is a HBO drama about someone whose main selling point is that they're an arsehole, and though I've always found Parker to be an obnoxious character, this was part of the attraction to reading a Spidey story - because he was such a... well, a prick, it felt like there was always elbow room for him to grow as a person. With One More Day a shadow is cast over that notion as no matter what happens with the character I will always know that a return to his default state as an adolescent bully is one issue away when the writer paints themselves into a corner again as they did with the marriage/unmasking.

    I do hear good things about Mark Waid's Daredevil, all the same, and will be reading this in trade form. Used to be I knew Waid only as the guy who did the non-Morrison JLA issues and dismissed him as a wannabe, which has turned out to have been my loss, really - dude's made some great comics, and this looks like another one.

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  6. I have also only now noticed that the bottom of that page you scanned has Parker deeply affected - almost to tears, it seems - by the sight of young parents with their children. If that's what I think it's a reference to, then I don't feel so bad ranting about the editorial decisions of One More Day if Waid/Rios are allowed to still be alluding to decisions made during Clone Saga.

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  7. Hello Mr Brigonos:- There is ALWAYS time for another rant about that Spider-Bloke from you, Mr B. Always. And I say that without any side to the comment at all.

    I can see why Slott didn't want to have Parker as a twenty-something victim. It makes sense to have Parker hit problems as a grown man because he's fallable and somewhat inept. I suppose that crushing and consistent ill-luck just doesn't make sense for a man with all the advantages which you reference. My opinion is nothing more than a preference here, but I still can't believe that the Parker I first met would grow up to be such a ... nebbish.

    I can certainly see how One More Day would really undermine the slightest hopes of anyone who'd rather see a more grown-up and mature Parker. I wonder if the book will ever pull away from the event horizon that surrounds that disaster.

    Waid's Daredevil is very impressive work. That property - and I mean "property", as in the whole set-up and not just one person's take on it - was really undermined by a variety of factors before he took over. Yet now we've Matt and Foggy back at the book's heart and the whole book's smart and successful. I think you'd enjoy the book, from a technical perspective as much as anything else.

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  8. Hello Mr B:- I'd not considered that panel in that context, though you did once mention the matter to me. It would indeed make that last panel unbearably poignant, and would add a reason for Parker's lack of a stable centre which would make the current incarnation of the character more than simply justifiable.

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  9. Hello Colin, and congrats on an even-better-written piece than usual. You argue well, as ever, and I agree with lots you say.

    But that's not important right now ...

    Peter, an unlikeable nebbish? I'd say that he makes bad decisions sometimes, and occasionally slights people because he's distracted by that day's super-villain, but his default position is the Good Friend. He's constantly worrying about others, trying to keep everyone safe. Yes, he sometimes has a why-me? wallow, but that's intrinsic to the Lee-Ditko set-up. If you have a couple of minutes to spare, I'd love to hear what it is about Peter that you see as so bad.

    Thank you for reclaiming 'clever' as a positive term. (And for reminding me that I forgot to read part two of this story, in Daredevil ... obviously, I got a full meal from the Spidey opener.)

    I'd say the Spider-Man book has already pulled away from the annoying stupidity of One More Day, concentrating on the Now; issues don't refer to the changes that were made. If Peter looking sad around a baby IS a subtle reference to the lost May, it's a nod to the fact that that story still happened - Peter and MJ were together for years, but without a marriage certificate. I'd actually be quite happy for that story to be waved away now, as I always hated the idea that Peter and MJ thought their child died after birth, while we readers knew she had been stolen - that was too big a thread to dangle, forever unaddressed. I just read that panel as Peter sighing over the lovely domesticity he's yet to achieve.

    So far as OMD goes, it's we readers who have to let it go.

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  10. Hello Martin:- Thank you for the kind words. Ah, but what about the Peter-the-nebbish point? Yours is an absolutely fair point. Peter does have good reasons for how he behaves in today's comics. But my problem - and it is my problem rather than an objective analysis - is that I can't believe that the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man would grow up to be the current Peter. It's something I've discussed before, and if I give you the reference for when I did so, it's not to say I expect it to be rushed to. Or ever visited at all. But it'd be rude if I didn't say that my feelings are expressed there, rather than simply giving you nought but a quick summary;

    http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.com/2010/05/that-radical-brian-michael-bendis-part.html

    But as a short summary, I think Peter, given 6,7,8 or even more years would've ended up as a very different character to the one we often see today. He often comes across as a whinger in a great many books, as a rather pathetic wisecracker, and that's fine for a 15 year old, but not a more than-twenty something. The Lee/Ditko Peter would be the leader of the Avengers by now, rather than somebody who struggles to empathise with others because he's preoccupied not just with super-villains, but with personal affairs too. Now, I've not read more 20% of the post BND issues, and I fully accept that it's a personal call. Mea culpe :)

    I do admire the Slott years, I really do. And I understand the decisions that have been made. After all, a paragon of an adult Peter would be tough for an audience to become involved with. It's not that I want the Peter of the past 5, 10, 15 or however many years back. It's that "my" Peter is that of the Lee/Ditko years, and he was so smart and kind that he'd have grown up fast and grown up into an incredibly able adult. No good for fiction, of course. I do get that. I'm just biased.

    I thought Mr B. was referring to a hint of child abuse which occured in those old Spidey issues. But I've probably got it all wrong. I too dislike the Parker baby set-up, the dangling and unresolved conceit. There was a great deal that went wrong with the PP/MJ marriage. And you're right, it is time to move on. I may not feel able to do that, but I hope I'm giving the book and its creators as much honest praise as I can. I think they're doing great. Oh, I'm looking for that fair play, honest-blogger medal.

    I hope that makes sense, Martin. I defend myself by owning up to the fact that I cannot objectively defend myself :)

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  11. Thanks for the link, Colin, I shall have a gander.

    I don't believe that public since child abuse story is in (what passes for) continuity.

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    1. From Martin: '...public since' should, of course, have been 'public service'. Stooped auto'correct'.

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    2. Hello Martin:- The piece is there for the most rainy, the most biblically-rainy of afternoons. Although arc-building might make more sense on such an occasion.

      Thanks for the (what passes as) continuity update. That last panel of that first page is touching enough anyway, isn't it? I do love that page.

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