Strange Bedfellows

Josh Kopin: Among the many and varied books that I picked up on this week of weeks was Marvel's Strange Tales #1, a title I've been excited about since I learned that the Norwegian cartoonist Jason would be drawing a story starring the Spectacular Spider-Man. Now that it's finally out, I was rather excited to see what worked, what didn't, and if the execution was as brilliant as the concept. Presumably, Jon, you were wondering some of the same things?

Jon Gorga: Sure, it's a weird mix. Although specifically in the case of Jason I had no fear, because the man is a genius. And to be honest this isn't the first time Marvel has done something like this. "The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man" #1 was a one-shot written and drawn by Peter Bagge that Marvel published a few years back under their short-lived imprint "Startling Stories" which was essentially all indie creators and Marvel published some of Fred Hembeck's stuff back in the day. So I was pretty confident that Marvel editorial and indie creators of both a comedic and dramatic stripe could co-exist and do some good work. How familiar were you with these lesser known creators before the announcement of this crazy title back in June, Josh?

Josh: Very few, actually. I know Jason and Paul Pope, of course, and was familiar with the Perry Bible Fellowship and James Kochalka, but outside of that I'm afraid I was very much in the dark about the creators. This is part of what made reading this series so much fun; I sort of knew what to expect from the first story (Pope's) and the last one (Jason's), but everything in between was something of a pleasant surprise.

Jon: I have to admit that I'd be lying if I said I knew everybody in here. Although on closer inspection the only names I couldn't place in some way was Junko Mizuno and Johnny Ryan. And after I saw Junko Mizuno's art style I realized I'd read a really creepy story of hers once in an anthology of manga and after my store's General Manager told me Johnny Ryan was the "Angry Youth Comix" guy, I said: Oh. Them. Okay.

Josh: Given, then, that we knew Paul Pope and Jason were going to bring their A-Game (and I'm pretty sure they did; that Pope could muster dialogue like "Horrors! I--I am incontinent with fear!!" is a pretty sure sign of genius), the real test of the book was going to be in those unknowns- the Johnny Ryans of the bunch. Which of the in-between stories stood out to you?

Jon: Although I was excited for Jason's Spider-Man story, I think the stand-out for me was Nick Bertozzi's M.O.D.O.K. story. It was SO sad and so funny at the same time. Which is pretty much exactly what was advertised in his interview with Marvel here. Maybe I've been sub-consciously affected by the fact that I've had to look at the M.O.D.O.K. build-a-figure for the entire time I've been working at the store. But I was actually genuinely moved by the choice M.O.D.O.K. makes at the end of the story. The idea that he almost had a shot at happiness because one female A.I.M. member (and the idea of one of those ugly-yellow-suited A.I.M. stormtroopers actually being a beautiful girl underneath was gold all by itself) tolerated his insanity but he fucked it up because he's a vain power-hungry maniac? I felt for him. My second favorite was the Dr. Strange story by Dash Shaw. (He talks about it with Marvel here.) I really need to read his graphic novel "Bottomless Belly Button". I think that Marcos Martin has to move over, because Shaw is now the smartest artist to ever draw Dr. Strange. This one panel with a battle of magical will between Doc Strange and Nightmare is to kill for. If they could get him to be the artist (JUST the artist mind you and with a good editor) on a monthly "Dr. Strange", I would buy at least the first issue to check it out.

But I was really disappointed overall that none of these creators took a firm stance in the dramatic. We never got an indie creator's take on Marvel characters. We pretty much got indie creators making fun of Marvel characters, if lovingly. Paul Pope said in this interview: "It's not a parody, though it is a comedy." But it was a parody. Did you not feel that way?

Josh: I guess that, for the most part, I did. With the exception of Jason's Spider Man story (which isn't parody simply because Spidey is already steeped in comedy and teenage angst), most of what's here seems to be making fun of the Marvel universe rather than looking at it from a unique perspective. In this regard I'm disappointed by Paul Pope in particular, because he's shown that he is capable of being a brilliant superhero writer/artist. Which isn't to say that Pope's pages aren't good, because they're great, simply that they weren't exactly what I was hoping for. Still, I think the MODOK story and the Perry Bible Fellowship ones walk the line between comedy and outright parody (that is, what Pope was aiming for) very well and I think they, as well as the Jason one, hold up the best in that respect.

Jon: Yeah, agreed. Although that's why I liked Bertozzi's M.O.D.O.K. story best, it also straddles a different line: that between drama and parody. In the interview with Paul Pope, Pope mentioned "Teenage Sidekick", the short story that appeared in his DC "Solo" issue (issue #3) which I just read recently and it is damn good. As is his O.M.A.C. story "Are You Ready for the World That's Coming?" in the same comic. In fact, I'd say both stories are required reading for a full-understanding of both Robin, the teen sidekick of the title, and the 'One Man Army Corps', respectively. By comparison his material in "Strange Tales" #1 is not as focused and rather silly. So as a fellow Marvel fan, I can't help but think: Paul Pope does two dramatic tales for DC and a parody for Marvel. What gives?

Josh: I suspect we will never know exactly what gave, although I wonder if it had more to do with Marvel editorial than the creators themselves: this would explain why it seems to be such a unifying feature of the stories present in this issue. I'm curious though: does your dissatisfaction with the style of some of the stories mean you don't like the stories themselves? Or that you don't like the project as a whole?

Jon: That's a hard question to answer. I think I still very much like the idea. But I'm hoping there might be a little more drama to be found in the next two issues. I'm not crazy about the stories themselves for the most part and I think both the individuals and the editorial staff are to blame. If Marvel wants this to be seen as them putting a hand of friendship out to the larger comics community (which may very well be something they desire considering they're going be bought up by Disney Corp. at the end of the year) I think they shouldn't have encouraged/allowed all the stories to be comedic in drive. Most of these creators have done some excellent dramatic work in the past. Indie comics- underground comics- comix- whatever you want to call them, are not purely a satirical-look-at-us-we-are-so-clever world. Michael Kupperman's "Tales Designed to Thrizzle" is not the be-all and end-all of underground comics. And they should have stepped up and really said: This is who and what we are, we do quality work of our own kind, and we may not ever want to be an in-house Marvel writer/artist but this is what we could do if we were. We'll have to see all three issues out before I could declare this whole project a failure or a success. Marvel has certainly, at least, shown that they know how to healthily laugh at themselves. Which stories stood out most for you, Josh?

Josh: Well, aside from the three already mentioned, I'm rather fond of both the Dr. Strange story you spoke of earlier and Michael Kupperman's Namor story. This brings me to an interesting point: what's so fantastic about Kupperman's story is the art, which sort of looks like it came from an Adult Swim cartoon. In fact, few of the artists (if any) draw in a traditional superhero style, something which I appreciated mightily. Are you fonder of the art than of the writing?

Jon: Well, it's funny you should say that, because I believe something Kupperman did was adapted recently into a cartoon on Adult Swim. And yeah, I guess I would say I liked the art more than the writing here. The art was never really disappointing. I can say that much. But if DC's "Solo" series from 2005, or so, is their equivalent to this project? It blows "Strange Tales" #1 out of the water. A'course, by doing it the way DC did it, each creator had a lot more space. There was no way this series could compare.

Josh: So, you think you'll pick up issue #2? I probably will, mostly because I remain curious about it. There probably won't be some major shift towards the dramatic (after all, Max Cannon is one of the writers), but I don't think I was turned off enough be this not to come back for at least one more go.

Jon: Yeah, I too will almost certainly return. My curiosity about this concept is still unabated. Will we do another switcheroo review week and a dialogue double-team review?

Josh: Yea! Let's do it. There are a couple of imprint books coming out the week before that I want to take a look at, and I'm curious to find out if you think that the second issue of Strange Tales is better than the first one.

Well, until next time:

Make Ours Marvel!

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