Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Sports Gene

So I didn’t inherit the sports gene. Or rather, the team sports gene. Not like most men, anyway. I do enjoy watching the Bengals when I have time or can work on something else while they’re playing. I love going to any stadium and watching a live event; there is something about the energy of the crowd and the spectacle of the athletes I enjoy. But I don’t really know the rules, the stats or the players. And I don’t care. 

This may not seem like a big deal, but it does tend to block an instant common denominator in new male relationships. At parties, meeting new coworkers, even at job interviews, I’ve had folks use sports as a conversation starter. They all seem disappointed that I have no opinion on who the Reds should use as a starting pitcher next season. Luckily I’m interesting enough to guide the conversation toward other manly things I enjoy; guns, motorcycles, Steven Seagal movies. But sports just leave me cold. 

My father wasn’t a huge sports guy. He watched his share of American sports, especially football and baseball. We would go to Reds games all the time when I was growing up and I loved the Big Red Machine of the ‘70s. I always took my glove but never caught a foul ball. But strikes, ridiculous salaries and whiny player behavior eventually soured me on baseball. Add to that the fact that watching baseball on TV is like watching glaciers move. I just can’t do it. I still go to the stadium when I have free tickets—it’s just not my first choice for entertainment. 

When my relatives used to sit around on holidays and watch sports when I was a kid, especially football that wasn’t the Bengals, I was bored out of my freaking mind. I have never understood the attraction. One reason may be that I’m not a natural athlete. I played on Knothole baseball and YMCA basketball teams when I was a kid and did terribly. I was always one of the worst players on the team. Later, it was the same for the church softball team and pickup basketball games in high school. I got much better at basketball after intense practice, but nothing about team sports ever came naturally. 

I contrast myself comically to my friend Eric. Eric and I have a lot in common and we’ve been close friends for 30 years. However, he is a sports freak. His television is glued to ESPN and sports programming 24 hours a day. He knows sports stats and player private and public lives going back to the 1800s. He reads books on the histories of sports and specific teams. He has an almost photographic memory of sports stats. He constantly finds it humorous that I don’t know jack about any sports related anything. I did have a good time learning football rules from Eric. In college, we used to skip a boring night class and go to his house and watch Monday Night Football. Looking at me as some kind of medical experiment or someone who had lived in a bubble from birth, he took the time to explain obscure football rules and how a first down worked. That was eye opening and made watching football a lot more enjoyable. Nothing would make watching baseball more enjoyable. I remember one night we were talking on the phone and he was shocked I didn’t know the World Series was on, and had no idea who the teams were. Hey, I knew it generally takes place in October or November, what do you want? Eric still takes time to assure me there is no such thing as a “football bat,” in tones one would use to explain how to cross the street to a small child. Philistine. 

As for sports I do enjoy, I tend to like individual sports rather than teams. I spent many years in the martial arts, specifically Shotokan karate. Later I took fencing for several years, learning western fencing, rapier/dagger and some Japanese swordplay. Those were ten times more fun that watching or playing basketball. I still enjoy target shooting, disc golf, racquetball and weightlifting, although I have little time to indulge in those activities. As soon as my bum knee gets fixed ... 

So a little understanding out there for men who didn’t get the sports gene. We’re still manly! I don’t know the players, the rules, the stats or what teams are in the playoffs. At this point I never will. It’s not the worst thing that can happen. Can we discuss geopolitics or Batman comics instead?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Comics: The Invincible Iron Man Epic Collection Volume 1

Marvel—or rather Editor Stan Lee and his artist cohorts, was on a tear of universe creation in the early 1960s. Iron Man came into being within two years of the great Lee/Kirby/Ditko creations such as Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and the Avengers. This first Epic Collection of the earliest Iron Man stories, remastered, recolored and in order, is a comic lover’s dream. The book covers the Armored Avenger from 1963-1965, featuring stories from Tales of Suspense #39-72.

Shellhead’s origin story from TOS #39 was astonishingly held intact, with minor tweaks, for the first Iron Man movie. Why? It works. A cool executive with a heart of steel, Tony Stark is monitoring his company’s war munitions in Viet Nam when a bomb goes off nearby, lodging shrapnel into his chest close to his heart. He wakes up in the camp of Vietnamese warlord Wong-Chu, forced to manufacture a weapon of mass destruction for Chu’s pleasure. Instead, he manufactures a chest plate to keep his heart pumping and weaponized suit of armor that allows him to defeat Wong-Chu and start his superhero career. The creative team for the first issue are not the usual suspects, as Stan only plots, his brother Larry Lieber scripts, and Dandy Don Heck does the art. The results are still outstanding. 

What I love about these stories is that the character and his look start to grow and change immediately, starting with the second Iron Man story in TOS #40. Stan is still plotting, but writer Robert Bernstein (credited as R. Berns) takes over the scripting chores. Jack Kirby takes over the art for a while as Iron Man battles Gigantus in this issue. Iron Man’s armor, already changing and updating each issue, turns from iron gray to gold. Readers get a true appreciation of Stan’s tight plots after reading a few issues by Bernstein—his dialog and characterization were throwaway nonsense for lowbrow readers and children. I realize Lee isn’t Shakespeare, but Stan had such a sharp sense of fun and witty dialog. It appears that Bernstein cranked out random words while he was working on his novel. Lee doesn’t take over full scripting until TOS #47, where he immediately whips things into fine superheroic shape. 

Issue #41 introduces fans to “The Stronghold of Doctor Strange,” not the Lee/Ditko Stephen Strange we come to know later, but sort of a villain prototype. In TOS #42, Heck returns to the art chores and decides to stay for a while. Issue #45 introduces two characters destined to make a huge impact on Tony Stark’s life, ex-boxer/bodyguard/chauffer Happy Hogan, and Stark’s secretary, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Fun Fact: Potts’ look was based on the tomboy character Schultzy from The Bob Cummings Show, played by the Brady Bunch’s Ann B. Davis). 

When Stan takes over scripting in issue #47, he wastes no time setting up the action framework of the series. With Don Heck creating fun (but somewhat ridiculous-looking) villains, Lee intersperses epic superhero battles with the triangle of Stark, Hogan and Potts. Stark actually has romantic feelings for Pepper and eventually falls for her, but can’t act because of his fear of her being collateral damage of a murderous Iron Man villain (the classic hero’s conundrum). Meanwhile, Happy falls for Pepper too, but she rejects him because of her feelings for Stark. Eventually, angry at yet another frustrating rejection from Stark, Pepper agrees to go out with Happy and has a good time, which breaks Stark’s heart and riles up some hard feelings between Tony and Happy. Meanwhile, villains are infiltrating Stark International left and right (mostly left) to kill Stark and end capitalist aggression. Yes, Russian bogeymen are prominently attempting to shut down Stark’s business so America won’t have weapons to fight Mother Russia. It’s all so quaint now, but at this time in history the Red menace was real and Russia was the biggest threat to American peace and prosperity. It sure was in Iron Man tales. 

Ever changing, artist Steve Ditko (can we all pause to genuflect while saying the name Steve Ditko?) ushers in Iron Man’s classic red & gold armor as the cliffhanger of TOS #48. It’s a rather forgettable story, with villain Mr. Doll having the same powers as the FF’s Puppet Master, but the Ditko art and that gorgeous last page totally make up for it. 

Tales of Suspense #50 introduces classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin, with whom Shellhead picks a fight so he won’t become a bigger threat later (sound familiar? I knew Iron Man was a Republican!). It’s one of the best stories in the book. Mandy is clobbered, but they basically end in a draw. Issue #52 introduces the Black Widow—I’d forgotten that in her debut and for a few years after she was not only a Russian spy, but malicious and evil. Here she is a far cry from the eventual heroine of the modern Marvel movies. Issue #54 is the return of the Mandarin, where it was revealed that he has Green Lantern’s origin. I never knew that—I love reading these seminal stories! Don Heck is really on fire at this point, as general costume design gets better and Iron Man’s armor becomes more stylistic and streamlined. The art is phenomenal during this period.  

Issue #57 is huge as it introduces everyone’s favorite archer, Hawkeye. Never really a villain, Hawkeye does start out committing some minor crimes and is then seduced completely by the Black Widow. His heart is never in it and he does redeem himself, but this kind of struggle really defines Marvel compared to any of its competitors at the time. I imagine DC just didn’t know what to make of these complex (for comics) attitudes and plots. As late as issue #64, the Black Widow is still leading Hawkeye around by his ... leash, and against his better judgment he is helping her fight Iron Man. In issues #69-71, Iron Man is called out to duel by the new Russian armored powerhouse the Titanium Man. In a three-issue mountain-toppling battle, Iron Man emerges victorious, but Happy Hogan is severely wounded. Happy’s injuries, and Pepper’s devastation at them, drive Stark nearly mad. Even in victory he loses the things most precious to him. 

In the last issue of this collection, TOS #72, Iron Man takes on the Mad Thinker and his android, but Happy continues to deteriorate and Stark manages to totally alienate Pepper, by now the love of his life. Lee, through sheer force of will, succeeds in making the soap opera drama balance perfectly with the action and superhero battles. 

Iron Man has always been one of my favorite Marvel heroes and currently the only Silver Age Marvel series I have in totality from issue #1 of the regular series. But I own very few of the Tales of Suspense stories and they are a pleasure to read. The stories vary in complexity and quality at the very beginning, but once Lee takes over the plotting and writing the book shoots into the stratosphere, with epic tales of cold war politicians and businessmen, steel-clad heroes and villains, and mushy love triangles. Highest recommendation. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars