January 29, 2010

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Spider-Girl Presents The Buzz and Darkdevil

Written by Tom DeFalco
Illustrated by Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema (Buzz)
Illustrated by Ron Frenz and Al Milgrom (Darkdevil)
Marvel

Given how few superhero comics I read these days, this may seem like an odd choice to grab from the library, and no, it's not an old review from a few years ago that I'm re-publishing. I actually have read every single issue of Spider-Girl, most of Amazing Spider-Girl, and about a half of everything else in the Marvel 2 Universe.

What can I say? I like the idea of reading comics about what would have happened if the Marvel Universe had aged with me instead of staying stuck in neutral. And the man at the helm, Tom DeFalco, may not be the best writer of comics in the world, but he tells an enjoyable story that keeps the heroes heroic.

The Buzz and Darkdevil are two DeFalco and Frenz creations from the world of Spider-Girl, both with ties to Peter Parker and his supporting cast. They were limited series written to flesh out characters that got popular marks in the letters pages of the main Spider-Girl comic.

Buzz is secretly J. Jonah Jameson's grandson, a youth cast from place to place by globe-trotting parents (including John Jameson, one-time aide to Captain America and, incidentally, the Man-Wolf) who lands with Jonah and Marla. They've basically built a Spider-Slayer they intend to use to fight crime, only the man set to wear the suit ends up dead. Now Jack must fill the mission of the costume, but can't tell his grandfather a thing! Paired with Joe Robertson's grandson and Spider-Girl herself, Buzz must face one of Spider-Man's most deadly enemies, seemingly returned from the grave!

Meanwhile, in a similarly familiar yet different origin story, Reilly Tyne, son of Spider-Man clone Ben Reilly, fights crime as Darkdevil! Imbued with the spirit of the original Daredevil, he must fight both Zarathos and the Kingpin of Crime to prevent yet another attempted manipulation of New York politics by Wilson Fisk. (Doesn't he know that trick won't work by now?) Just how does Kaine, another legacy of the clone years, figure into this story? And can even a man with the spirit of the Man Without Fear stop supernatural and human villainy of the highest order?

I liked Buzz's story a bit better than Darkdevil's, but that's primarily because it's mercifully clone-free. While DeFalco may have fond memories of those mid-nineties Spider-Man stories, they just weren't very good and I'm still mad at my teenage self for buying them. However, it is interesting to see the characters from those years grow and change. (A clone of Peter Parker working for the Kingpin? That's either brilliant or awful, and quite possibly both in the most Marvel-like manner.) The idea that the son of a clone might suffer clone degeneration is pretty clever as well.

It's rather interesting that these stories are almost a contrast in storytelling. Buzz is about people who don't change. Jonah still wants to control the heroes and rages when he cannot. Marla's still playing mad scientist with JJJ's money. The villain of the piece, Doctor Octopus, remains as dignified as ever, even if he is a cold-blooded killer. Since Spider-Girl is fairly well liked by New York and the other heroes, Buzz falls into the Web-head's role of outsider who's distrusted by others.

On the other hand, Darkdevil has changes thrust upon him by the unthinking Kaine and the demonic Zarathos. The guy from Code Blue is more focused on the city as a whole rather than just crime as he runs for mayor. Peter is now a policeman. Kaine's killer past looms but here he's playing the role of his more heroic "cousins." Only the Kingpin is in familiar form, trying to run things from the shadows, even if he traded barred windows for barred walls.

DeFalco's scripting is right out of the Stan Lee playbook. Heroes recite corny dialog and villains monologue their way across the page. Politicians and cops say those words we can almost recite from memory. Both plots are also familiar ground, saving people from capture, thwarting master schemes, and arriving in the nick of time. It's all very familiar, and in large doses, I'd quickly grow tired of it. But for a few issues and about an hour's reading, it's a nice throwback. They may not make 'em like they used to, but DeFalco sure tries. Since it's so unlike most comics, this is as unusual as reading a Steve Gerber comic from the mid-70s.

The other reason I liked the Buzz mini a bit better is because of the inker. I'm a huge Sal Buscema fan and have been almost my entire comics-reading life. His inking is extremely prominent in the Buzz, looking almost like it did during his long run doing pencils and inks for Spectacular Spider-Man. He and Frenz are a great match, and the panels sing out for the days when comic book art in superhero comics was a lot better as a rule than it is today. People who are scared *look* scared. Characters move and react to the scenes and people around them, rather than posing for pin-up shots. Plus, we get the patented Buscema punch in a few places, always a welcome addition to any comic.

[Yes, I'm a bit of a grump when it comes to modern superhero comic book art. So much of it lacks the motion that typified comics of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It's like we've regressed in drawing even as the writing is much more complex.]

Al Milgrom's inks over Frenz are good, too, they just lack the distinctive touches that Sal uses when he's given room to work. He's a bit quicker to reach for the solid blacks and shadows, but Milgrom and Frenz keep the story moving, even when characters are frozen in space. Their action layouts don't quite catch my eye the way that Buscema's do, but I still enjoyed them a lot.

While none of the Marvel 2 work is going to win an Eisner, they're fun stories. They take a What If idea and run with it across an entire set of titles. Sometimes I just like being entertained and leave the heavy lifting of more serious comics for another night. If you have a soft spot for writers like DeFalco (and his DC comics equivalent, Chuck Dixon), this is definitely worth picking up. However, I'd highly recommend that you read some Spider-Girl first.