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Startling Stories: The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street #1-4
posted January 19, 2006
 

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Creators: Evan Dorkin, Dean Haspiel
Publishing Information: Marvel Comics, $3.50 each, 2003
Ordering Numbers:

Superheroes have an interesting shelf life. I was in the fifth grade when the Uncanny X-Men's Wolverine rode the Hellfire Club's dumbwaiter into the upper stratosphere of fannish regard. A student of the art form as Stan Lee defined its parameters I recognized a changing of the guard when I saw one. I soon became fascinated with which Marvel superheroes were most popular and when. It was not at that time a very long list. According to the older comic book fans in my hometown, at least when they could put down their bongs and turn down their Billy Connolly albums, the most popular character in the Marvel Universe before Wolverine was the robot superhero, occasional crybaby and Mr. Spock stand-in The Vision. Before that, Spider-Man ruled -- the version on the motorcycle that complained about having two girlfriends and fought everyone with his arm in a sling. The very first breakout character 1960s Marvel ever had, I was repeatedly assured, was the agonized everyman brickhouse of The Fantastic Four: The Thing.

I have since encountered very few significant disputations of this fan-favorite lineage 1961-1980, although a bit of haggling over the details. Many older fans have assured me they were taken aback by the potency of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man long before they were seduced by John Romita's swanky mini-skirts. They testify the singular oddness of that title and character are what really distinguished the Marvel superhero renaissance. Letters from college-aged fans to Stan Lee in the mid-1960s indicate that the Hulk was well received from the time Ditko helped shape his second run in comic books, maybe the most significant under-the-radar creative contribution of that period. But despite the efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to puff up Reed Richards in any comic where he appeared, the Thing was obviously popular in a way that lingers for decades. The character continues to offer a combination of humor, pathos, stellar design and ability to punch things that indicates charming stories in him still.

There is some funny and almost poignant material sprinkled throughout the Evan Dorkin and Dean Haspiel mini-series, The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street. It's just not where you might first look. For instance, the series opens with a fight between the Fantastic Four and the exquisitely stupid Red Ghost and his Super Apes. Kicking things off that way puts Haspiel immediately on the defensive, because such fight scenes run on different energies than the artist's own comics and he gets little chance to work his way up to speed on the slugfest particulars. Haspiel's potential discomfit proves worth it in order to read Dorkin's voiceover for the Thing. Dorkin coaxes from the character the weariness in mulling over the 465th most interesting day one has ever spent at work. This makes for sly commentary in that not only is the Thing slightly bored with the routine, readers may be a tiny bit tired with the Fantastic Four “mythos�? or superhero fight scenes in general. Most opening back and forths in a Marvel superhero comic whet the reader's appetite for action to come; any domestic scenes that follow help the reader become invested in the personal struggles that parallel the physical action. As played here, the opening scenes are more like narrative Ipecac. They condition the reader to accept that the best, most interesting, and vitally important portion of the Thing's combat-filled recent life is going to be an encounter with a woman. Dorkin and Haspiel not only show you a super-baboon, they convince you it's boring.

Both writer and artist have filtered romance through genre prisms in their alternative comics work: Dorkin in the “The Bummer Trilogy�? Hectic Planet shorts in Dark Horse Presents and Haspiel in his Billy Dogma books. That experience makes them sharp enough to work as specifically as possible in terms of emotional range. They cagily set up the Thing's romance based not on its sexual component, but as the kind of encounter with the opposite sex where the potential for physical contact is subsumed into a sweet, happy-to-be-here crush, an easy to wear acceptance of someone as an attractive person desirable to be around that is often a way station before sexual energy becomes an overriding issue. This proves interesting to read because those feelings may be more rare than those surrounding lustier forms of attraction, and as such are underplayed in representations of relationships in pop literature. It is also an appropriate area of exploration for the Thing, as despite a name so phallic it could have won him a place on the member-fixated 1997 Seattle Mariners one suspects he has some sort of rock business in his underpants.

Dorkin and Haspiel use the character's emotional and physical state to unpack a crucial portion of his story's thematic progression. The initial scenes between Thing and Hazel are played convincingly enough that the reader stands a good chance of becoming invested in the character's emotional state, and sympathize with his overwhelming desire for connection. Thus when the relationship is in issue #4 revealed to have an unsavory sexual element, it feels like a new narrative element has been introduced to the mini-series rather than a somewhat obvious story point revealed. Cosmic rays and Jack Kirby have conspired to make this giant brute an effective stand-in for a reluctant innocent, and Dorkin plays the thoroughness of his self-loathing and the ugliness of his condition's obvious metaphors with a knowing hand. Both cartoonists utilize their lead with an appreciation for the relationship between power and potency that is an underlying theme in the early Marvel comics, making the series an apt extension of an early subtext.

Another nice twist to be discovered in Night Falls on Yancy Street is that the seriousness of the violence runs parallel to the degree of emotional complication. Emotional vulnerability invariably leads to its physical counterpart: love hurts, and so do broken limbs. The major fight in issue #4 between the Thing and various “Frightful Four�? members reads ten times nastier than the monkey tussle in issue #1. When one of the major bad guy characters does horrible things to his ostensible ally Paste Pot Pete – the mini-series has the designation for how Marvel describes “imaginary�? stories, those tales set apart from the corporate approved plot progression for the characters, so anything goes – it feels briefly like the reader has come across a Lee/Kirby snuff comic. Dorkin and Haspiel may lack the sort of investment in superhero comics necessary to make use of vicious asskickings as a metaphor for much of anything beyond devastating hurt, but that rudimentary comparison lingers much longer than the soap opera moments that drive the remainder of the plot. If the story lingers in its readers' memories, it will likely be for the surprising relentlessness of its depressing outlook concerning our ability to connect with other people despite significant obstacles.

The major failing of Night Falls on Yancy Street is that the mini-series takes forever to connect its dots. Minus its two major fights and the initial meeting between the Thing and his potential paramour, the series feels like it was stitched together out of undistinguished subplot pages cut from 30 issues of the ongoing comic. It might have been more interesting read that way. In mini-series form the pacing manages at times to be cursory and leaden, giving loads of information about non-essential details but not enough that coheres into an overall effect. The reader spends a lot of time with the Thing and Hazel and sees a bit of their world, but none of their shared experiences provides poignancy behind the basic set-up; nothing sticks. Dorkin and Haspiel also fail to explore the implications of certain issues their story broaches, the way that failure at love can hint at a world of much wider personal problems and a lifetime's worth of regret. The characters they use might collapse forced to work such territory, but as it stands it feels like so many obvious questions are hinted at then ignored for the sake of narrative expediency. This makes the bulk of the four issues feel like an exercise in mood rather than a story that asked to be told, more interesting pitch than compelling comic book.

The real-world elements which the creators put into play end up being judged not on their usefulness in exploring an issue or theme but in terms of their appropriateness for marching these characters around a while. Like many Marvel comics, even something halfway evocative about the human condition quickly becomes a servant of the license and the larger story that has accrued around it. Dorkin and Haspiel have hit on an unfortunate truth: Marvel Comics are mostly about themselves, the way long-running television shows nearly always lurch away from their original concept and adopt the characteristics of soap opera. Even at the series end, when events have turned out dark and hopeless, the feeling is less about that part of the human condition and more that a Marvel property has had one of its original subtexts restored to it. Night Falls on Yancy Street ends up a pretty good story for the Thing; it is not a good story in and of itself. Your ability to empathize depends greatly on how naturally you feel for superheroes going in, or how much you have invested in this specific character before page one. And even that kind of connection is harder these days with 40 years of material on which to draw, multiple takes that exhaust some story possibilities and confuse others.

Dean Haspiel's art provides its own combination of unique interest and occasional frustration. The artist draws a fun New York rooftop, a refreshingly real-world attractive and physically present female lead, a fine rocky-looking Thing, pretty standard bad guys and some not-as-interesting side characters. At times the art pops off the page in fine, cartoon-energetic fashion -- Matt Madden's coloring flatters Haspiel's contributions throughout the series. At other moments it seems like Haspiel wants to put over events and people he hasn't quite nailed in terms of look and presence by jacking up the general energy and attitude of his figure drawing. In those scenes, characters lean into the action and their faces contort, designs feel arch and over-stylized. Gene Colan used to do something similar, but was throughout his career a more interesting illustrator than Haspiel. It rarely worked for Colan, either. One can also sniff out a potential slight disconnect between dialogue and art. For instance, one major plot revelation regarding the nature of someone's death comes in dialogue after the fact, the kind of thing a writer might do to resuscitate an idea lost earlier in a scene. This has a deleterious effect on the way the story is paced. Without a dramatic counterpart in the scene itself, the act of picking up such information distracts greatly from the emotional arc present at the story's end. Haspiel's art is really effective in the date scenes and less memorable depicting the Thing's lonelier encounters with the title neighborhood. Haspiel has an obvious knack for depicting person-to-person physical relationships and the energy level dims whenever a character goes solo or the impact of their presence has to be spread out over a group. One hopes the artist will receive future opportunities to work through these crucial subtleties.

Despite stand-alone moments of admirable craftsmanship and appeal, The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street reinforces the argument that Jack Kirby's characters cannot handle the weight of thematic accrual as well as they can military press a giant piece of groovy-looking machinery. By story's end several plot elements have blown up in the Thing's face; you may not get through issue #2 before you feel that something has begun to fizzle out in yours.