Hey, remember when journalism was a thing?
The Marvel Universe is (literally) a fantastic place. Anything can happen in a world with human torches soaring overhead and mole monsters bursting from Manhattan streets to cause terror.
It’s the kind of otherworldly awesomeness that made Marvel successful, but as the universe grew beyond just a few titles, there came room to see how the other people in this world live. What does it mean to be a regular person in a town where the Lizard can derail your subway train on one day and Thanos can shoot the whole place into space on the next?
And as a journalist, how do you cover that? The Marvel crime beat is a little more complicated than chatting with Officer O’Malley about the latest gangbangers.
In the recently-released Spider-Man: Daily Bugle, we take a look inside the Marvel Universe’s most famous (or is that infamous?) newspaper in a collection of stories from the 1990s and early 2000s, when, uh, newspapers were still a thing. Yet somehow, it may be more relevant now than ever.
Especially in the first story, which is almost totally bereft of super-dramatics — and color! Paul Grist’s three-issue, black and white Daily Bugle series from 1996 does however show off all your ink-covered favorites, like Ben Urich, Joe “Robbie” Robertson, Betty Brant, Ken Ellis, Charlie Snow (really!), J. Jonah Jameson, of course, and even a shutterbug by the name of Peter Parker. Brant takes the lead for most of the story, as the secretary-turned-reporter tries to uncover the shady dealings of a restaurant chain that eventually led to the death of one of its owners.
But all the characters — and I do mean ALL the characters — get their own moments and even their own story arcs in this truncated series, an amazing feat, to be sure. Some of the framing is a little ham-fisted, with a Snow-led “tour” of the Bugle introducing everyone at first, and there’s some unnecessary narration at times, but hey, we still hadn’t gotten past that yet in the ’90s.
What’s additionally impressive about Daily Bugle is how it takes the time to hammer home what journalists really do — seek the truth, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Even gruff, well-off Jonah turns on one of his high-society buddies when he finds out how little the guy cares for his tenants. It probably wasn’t super-powered prescience of today’s state of affairs that made Grist include these moments, but it does make the 20-year-old story newly and surprisingly important.
At a time when the art of comics isn’t talked about as much as the writing, Daily Bugle might also stand out by being bare bones — just the inks of Greg Adams on the pencils of Karl Kerschl. The stripped-down style doesn’t succeed as well as it has elsewhere, as it’s hard to make out certain things that would have been more obvious with color, but it clearly fits a less bombastic story, and it’s of course evocative of the medium it’s referencing.
Bill Rosemann’s four-issue Deadline, conversely, feels more dated and stuck in its own time. Kat Farrell is a hard-nosed reporter sick of her beat covering “capes.” She thinks they’re needlessly flashy and yearns to write about the real struggles of real New Yorkers.
But she wonders if her meeting with a source is actually a date? And thinks about her GRANNY PANTIES while FALLING TO HER DEATH, only to bristle at a cop being sexist five pages later? Deadline was published in 2002, so it may even be BEHIND its own time, as it seems like it’s trying to portray a well-rounded women, with both career and relationship goals — buy how many MALE leads have similar thoughts? If it’s not suited for the gander, it probably isn’t for the goose.
The plot of Deadline isn’t any more coherent, as Farrell meets a judge who may or may not be anti-“cape,” who may or may not be the spirit of a dead man, who had SOMETHING to do with the Tinkerer, but none of it is really clear. The reveals make you realize you didn’t understand as much of what was going on as you thought you did, and there’s an extended jaunt to a spirit world that would have been more effective if cut in half.
At least Guy Davis’ pencils are consistent, in that everyone’s heads are kind of oblong and their facial expressions don’t really communicate what they’re meant to. Dave Stewart’s colors are drab and muddled, evoking neither the superhero world nor the more grounded one Farrell belongs to.
The volume is filled out with a 16-page story by Steven Grant that originally appeared in Spectacular Spider-Man #205-207, in 1993, issue #20 of of the legendary Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, by Zeb Wells, and Tom DeFalco’s Marvel Holiday Special 2004, in which Jolly Jonah recapitulates Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with a spandex cast, learning he should pay for his staff’s holiday party in a change of heart that of course could never have lasted. The Holiday pencils by Takeshi Miyazawa and colors by Christina Strain are fine, but they won’t push anything forward, either.
Grant’s Taps is a little more nuanced, featuring a proud Jonah brought low when he finds out the public thinks the Bugle is a joke. JJ’s anger gives way to sadness as the realization grips him, only to turn into self-centered determination when deciding only he can right the ship. It’s a neat demonstration of depicting a journey without actually changing the character. The ’90s are strong in both the pencils of Walter McDaniel and the colors of Michael Higgins, not really in a bad way, but in that Taps looks nearly identical to a thousand other books printed during that time.
And of course Behind the Moustache is a gem that should make all comic readers curse Zeb Wells’ success on Robot Chicken. In it we get some classic JJJ self-delusion and an insight into what might actually make him hate Spider-Man so much. There are some neat visual flourishes from artist Dean Haspiel, too, especially when Jonah turns the emotional tables on his therapist, and Steve Buccellato’s colors complement the more light-hearted story well.
Spider-Man: Daily Bugle is an uneven collection of more grounded Marvel stories that, while not being able to reach the heights of something like The Marvels, can still be a fun peak into how the average Joes get by in a world of wonder and horror. If you look around, you can still find all the issues contained herein for below cover price, if you want to weed out the lesser stories, but you could do worse than picking up this bundled package for only $29.99. It’s the best kind of fake news.