Thursday, September 17, 2015

My Year With Marvel: Miniseries Of My Youth

A couple months back, I sat down to write about DAREDEVIL, Marvel’s first Netflix show. And oh, how the words did flow.

Trouble was, most of those words concerned Frank Miller and John Romita Jr’s 1993 miniseries, which served as my introduction to the character and became a touchstone comic for me throughout the late 90s/early 2000s, even though the plot quickly faded. When it came to the show, I mostly wanted to talk about how it uses sound1; a topic I lack the technical language to turn into a full post.

So I gave up and started writing about DAREDEVIL: THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR. Before long, the 1993 GAMBIT miniseries also crept into the mix, leaving me with some jaw on the two half-remembered touchstone miniseries of my youth.

Even though I refer to these series often, I last read them in excess of fifteen years ago. They aren’t fresh in my mind, by any means. This week, I want to talk about the details that've stuck with me all these years. Next week, I’ll reread both series and give my contemporary, adult impressions of the things they accomplish, or fail at.

Cover of Daredevil #1, featuring a red-haired blind boy cradling the body of a dead man who looks vaguely like him. A red-bordered line drawing of a man wearing a devil-horned mask and carrying a cane hovers behind the figures.
Let’s start with DAREDEVIL, since it was the instigator of this little game. Three major things have stayed with me:

Big Thing #1: it is very hot in Hell’s Kitchen

Whenever anyone mentions Hell’s Kitchen, I think about the opening where it’s hot as an oven.

I thought about it in particular when I myself visited Hell’s Kitchen and discovered just how true it was. I normally love hot weather, but Hell’s Kitchen was just as hellish as its name implies when I weathered it carrying two heavy-ass bags of books from the Javits Centre to the bus stop on 9th Avenue.

It was much nicer whenever I ventured there sans heavy-ass bags.

Big Thing #2: Hell’s Kitchen is hella dangerous

On my first trip to NYC, Jenny suggested we share a meal in Hell’s Kitchen. My immediate (and not entirely serious) response was, “OMG we can’t go there we’ll be attacked and/or get acid thrown in our eyes.”

Jenny informed me Hell’s Kitchen is no more dangerous than any other part of NYC these days, but we still ended up going someplace else. I think that was mostly because the activity we did wasn’t particularly close to the neighbourhood, but maybe me freaking out about that one time I read a Daredevil comic also factored into the decision. Only Jenny knows.

I should add that no one even looked at me funny in Hell’s Kitchen, and I went there a bunch of times over multiple trips. So, yeah.

Big Thing #3: Daredevil has heightened senses

The biggest of big things.

To this day, I think, “Oh, that’s like Daredevil!” whenever I hear tell of someone “seeing” with another sense. Toph from AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER put me in mind of Matt Murdock, as did Ben Underwood, the boy who navigated the world using echolocation.

Cover of Gambit #1, featuring the title character leaping over his name, which appears in enormous letters. He wears a trench coat and carries a quarterstaff.
I found Howard Mackie, Lee Weeks, and Klaus Janson's 1993 GAMBIT miniseries in a grotty bin in a grotty store in a grotty town on an otherwise unmemorable spring break trip.

It changed my life.

GAMBIT taught me the joys of contemporary superheroes and sent me straight to the comic shop to explore the X-Men in more detail. If you’ve been following My Year With Marvel, you know they rank among my favourites to this day.

My recollections of GAMBIT aren't terribly specific, but the series still made a huge impression on me, not least because it takes place in New Orleans. GAMBIT helped foster in me a strong compulsion to go there; a compulsion I’ve unfortunately been unable to realize, in large part because I travel alone and all the sources agree New Orleans, unlike Hell’s Kitchen, deserves its reputation as a dangerous place to visit without backup.

I was also delighted Gambit used playing cards to hold his kinetic charges. (His mutant power involves blowing shit up, but he’s gotta put the charge inside something. No shooting bolts out of his fingers or anything like that.) I was a huge card player in my youth. My grandma taught me basic math with Crazy 8s, my speech therapist used Go Fish to help me trounce my lisp, and my high school friends and I played cards every chance we got.

I’ve since developed a bit of a thing for books about card players. Gambit was a big part of that.

I can’t swear to this, but I think GAMBIT was also the first thing I read where thieves and assassins were the main characters. Not the antagonists; not minor folks lurking around the edges, helping or hindering the hero as the need arose. The story centred on them. These days, I can’t make a recs list without it’s packed with assassins, so draw your own conclusions.

Most of all, though, GAMBIT got me interested in the X-Men. I had friends who watched the cartoon series (including one who insisted we make a special trip to the zoo to visit the wolverines), but I hadn’t seen it myself and knew very little about mutants overall. That changed after I met Gambit. I was thrilled to learn Marvel had just commissioned an ongoing series about the man himself, and I bought it faithfully from its premiere issue to its cancellation.

These days, I recognize Gambit is rather creepy, but I can’t help but love him anyways. He did a lot for Teenage Me, so I’m willing to focus on his good qualities without excusing his faults.

I made a point of drafting this post before I reread these two miniseries, but once I finished I dove straight in. Tune in next week to see what I thought of these two formative works seventeen years down the line.

  1. I can’t hear properly out of my left ear thanks to a stupid decision I made in my youth. I’m not deaf, but I do try to keep people on my right side if possible, and I’m sensitive to things like TV soundtracks (by which I mean all the sound, not just the music). In most cases, I have to keep the volume fairly high so I can hear the vocal track over the music track and the sound effects, which are almost always louder than the dialogue.

    I didn’t have this problem with DAREDEVIL because the entire soundtrack is crisp and even. The actors often whisper their lines, but the sound engineer adjusts the volume so each word is as clear and distinct as every other sound that populates the show. There’s no privileging of this type of auditory information over that.

    I found this fascinating, given how Matt Murdock sees with his ears. The crisp editing lets us experience the sound in something akin to the same way he does.


  1. Ahahahah, I don't remember this business about Hell's Kitchen, but that's hilarious. Hell's Kitchen is FINE. I promise. I would not steer you astray. I will say that I like that the Daredevil show has justified the danger of its version of Hell's Kitchen by relating it to the events of Avengers. It's a bit of a stretch, but I can go with it! Aliens attacked Hell's Kitchen, and now Hell's Kitchen is a damn mess. Sure!

    Do you use subtitles when you watch things? To correct for the problem of imperfect sound mixing? I will feel joyous if you say yes. I put subtitles on everything, and I love them, but my preferences are, yeah, not shared by most humans.

    1. Aliens've always gotta turn otherwise decent neighbourhoods into violent hellholes. So rude.

      Alas, I cannot bring you joy on the subtitle front. I just turn the sound up to an appropriate level for the vocal track. I have a friend who always uses subtitles, though! And she pauses her shows so she can take pictures of important moments with the captions already built in.

  2. I love the idea of this post! I'm always so curious about the vague impressions texts leave on people, especially if they end up being contradictory to their next reading.

    Even with both ears allegedly working fine, I have discovered that I'm really sensitive to sound mixing: Hannibal was a nightmare in that regard, because the writing was so good and everybody was basically whispering and the dialogue was mixed SO LOW.