There were two things I loved in 1989, Nintendo and the Wonder Years. The movie The Wizard gave me the bizarre opportunity to combine both of them. My mom took my brother and I to the movies to let us experience this first hand. We left that theatre elated. I hadn’t seen the movie in the following 26 years until last weekend. I’ll proudly admit (if you couldn’t guess based on the title of this article), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it still.
Now make no bones about it, this is not a good movie in a way shape or form. Sometimes though you can coast through something solely on nostalgia despite how bad it is. Other times though nostalgia just isn’t enough.
This guilty pleasure, even more than the last two that I’ve done, is a shameful admission. It’s not that Venom is an unpopular character, he’s well into the mainstream as far as popularity goes. No… Venom is a tasteless character. He’s like a Monster Truck driven by a professional wrestler, and while almost everything that’s ever been done with the character is hilariously awful, I can’t help but love the concept. He’s the Doritos Loco Taco of comic books. I can’t help hating myself for loving it.
Now this isn’t the first time I’ve delved into my shameful love of unpopular comics characters, but this one is far nearer to my heart.
I grew up in what was probably the height of the X-Men’s popularity, at least in the world of comics. But this was before Marvel learned to cash in on every opportunity to make a cheap buck, so X-titles were few and far between; There was the flagship Uncanny X-Men title, which was always a good time (even when they were in Australia). Then there was The New Mutants, my personal least favorite, which featured a team of X-Men in training. There was X-Factor, which featured the original students of the Xavier Academy discovering and enlightening young mutants (and getting into epic battles). And then there was Excalibur. Excalibur was a horse of a different color.
Excalibur began as a one-shot which was, looking back, basically just a playground for some of Chris Claremont’s personal favorite characters. During the Mutant Massacre, Shadowcat and Nightcrawler had been moved to the Disabled Roster (sports reference!) due to injuries sustained in fighting the Marauders. So, as they recuperated on Muir Island, the X-Men’s base of British operations, the remaining X-Men met their demise in Dallas (or so it seemed! But that’s a guilty pleasure for another day) during the Fall of the Mutants. After their makeshift family died, Kitty and Kurt were naturally feeling a bit disillusioned.
Brian Braddock, better known as Captain Britain, and his girlfriend Meggan (a metamorph who could shapeshift and adapt pretty much any power) were also having some trouble. Brian’s sister Betty, also known as Psylocke, was among the X-Men killed in the Fall of the Mutants, and Brian had subsequently been finding comfort in the shape of a bottle. And while he preferred his poison straight up, their relationship was undeniably on the rocks. Hey-ohhhh!
Lastly, we have Rachel Summers. Rachel is the adult daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey from the Days of Future Past timeline. She inherited her mother’s good looks, red hair, and link to the omnipotent celestial being known as the Phoenix. She had been an X-Man as well, but after she attempted to kill one of their enemies, Wolverine stabbed her through the chest. That’s kind of like being fired from the X-Men. In her weakened and wounded state, she was taken into the custody of the other-dimensional TV executive Mojo.
The storyline of Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn (the retroactively named one-shot that launched the Excalibur series) gets moving when Rachel escapes from Mojoworld and makes it back to the X-Men’s reality. She’s being hunted separately by several parties, and the rest of the heroes come to her aid and afterward resolve the fill the gap left by the X-Men’s apparent deaths.
I have to admit that I’m an enormous Captain Britain fan, probably the biggest on this side of the pond. I met him through this book as a kid, but I’ve since gone back and read most of his stories. Alan Moore and Alan Davis reinvented the character in the early 80s and the book was so much fun. In those pages, you could see two men who would arguably grow to be the finest in the respective arts cut their teeth in an unregarded corner of the Marvel Universe. It’s Alan Moore’s only substantial work for the company, and I think it’s some of his best.
Claremont and Alan Davis took all of the high concept science fiction fun of the Captain Britain series and mixed it in with the mainstream Marvel universe. And then they came up with a recipe for even more fun… In Captain Britain, it had been established that there were many, many Earths each with it’s own Captain Britain. Beginning with issue 12 of Excalibur, Claremont and Davis took the book on a sojourn through these worlds, each with its own version of the heroes to offer. While originally advertised as a nine part storyline, the Cross-Time Caper ended up stretching out a bit to contain the insanity.
So this book became Claremont’s playground for zany alternate reality stories, and a fun time was had by all. But the real star of the book was the artist Alan Davis. Davis, as previously mentioned, had worked on Captain Britain for quite some time earlier in the decade. He’d then went across the street to DC for a bit t work on Batman and the Outsiders and Detective Comics before returning to Marvel and doing a few insanely gorgeous issues of Uncanny X-Men. To me, Davis is the perfect superhero artist. Sure, there are people who photorealistic work, there are guys with a beautiful art deco style. But when it comes to capes and tights, Alan Davis has it down to a science.
Alan Davis left the series after intermittently drawing the first 24 issues. Shortly thereafter, Claremont followed. But then, around the time of the big X-Book relaunches, Davis came back as writer/artist and turned the book back into gold. He picked up storylines from the initial run and proved his mettle as a storyteller on par with Marvel’s golden boy Claremont. The book was goofy and it’s often regarded in hindsight as a mere footnote in Marvel history, but it was the top of line in my young eyes and that sort of thing doesn’t change.
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I love an underdog. I don’t watch sports, but when I happen to see a game I automatically root against whichever team is the more popular. Maybe I just get off on being contrary, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think it’s the idea that these guys keep getting their asses handed to them but never call it quits. My taste in comic book villains is a great example of this fascination.
A longtime favorite of mine, to whom I was first introduced via a pop-up book, is the Tarantula. I’d inherited the book from one of my older brothers , so it was probably my first real Spider-Man story. And I loved it… but it wasn’t because of the wise-cracking hero. Spider-Man himself was all well and good in my eyes; A young photographer who fought crime in a suit that was for some reason red and blue. But this mustachioed bandit with the accent? This unashamed stereotype of every Spanish-speaking culture, all wrapped in one big racist tortilla. He was, in my 3 year old eyes, Spider-Man’s greatest foe. The way I saw it, he was Peter’s opposite number. Another spider-themed character, but this one was a criminal. And he had knives for shoes.
For those who aren’t familiar, the Tarantula was a South American mercenary who donned a special pair of boots with pointed tips. These tips were sometimes coated in poison, sometimes electrically charged, but always muy dangerous. He was one of the many characters the Jackal contracted to take down Spider-Man, and failed just as hard as the others. And he spoke comic book Spanish, which means he spoke perfect English but peppered it with Fifth grade Spanish vocabulary words. Problems become “problemas”, every man he meets is a “Señor”, and very becomes “muy” without batting an eye. However, he comes up with some very obscure English words on the spot. His English teacher (presumably the same person who taught Colossus and Nightcrawler) should have made sure they were clear on how to say “goodbye” before teaching them the word “triumph”.
He was eventually mutated into an actual Tarantula and killed himself, only to have his pointy shoes filled by a successor who was virtually indistinguishable from the original.
Shortly after that, I learned to read and started devouring the then-current Spider-Man issues. And it was a hell of a time to be into comics. It was David Michelinie’s run on Amazing Spider-Man. Kraven had recently eaten a bullet, Venom had just premiered and the Sinister Six would be reforming not too long after. So, between the guy who was essentially Spider-Man with a mouth and the fella with eight robotic arms, The Tarantula was clearly not the perfect foil to Spidey. That period of Spider-Man comics was packed with great stories and appearances from just about all of his villains. Tarantula did show up once in that era (albeit with a different man beneath the mask) and that was when I realized that he was not the big deal I thought him to be. He was a joke. He was a racist joke in tights. But even if the rest of the world didn’t find a thick accent and spiky loafers as threatening as I did, I soldiered on. I am not ashamed to admit that I am a Tarantula fan.
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