One of those “Today I Learned” things. The creature Molasar, from 1983 fantasy horror THE KEEP, was designed by French comic book artist, Enki Bilal. (Another HEAVY METAL magazine heavyweight—there is a big tome to be written on the influence of French comic art on Hollywood—Métal hurlant in particular.)
I first learned of the name Enki Bilal in a Dutch book on comic book history. I was 7 or 8. Each name was new to me, each one a world to be explored. Bilal came after Barks—and whenever I looked up Barks, which I did a lot, I came across Bilal, who was featured with one of his illustrations from his 1982 portfolio, DIE MAUER (The Wall) (last image). As a wee kid, I thought the art was weird and off-putting, but intriguing, and I didn’t forget it. A similar concept of people trapped in walls appears in THE KEEP by the way; and Bilal’s influence on the film reaches a bit further even, as he also designed its poster (image 4).
I should also mention that Tangerine Dream did a wonderfully sinister and atmospheric score for THE KEEP: an evocative 80s soundscape.
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Outasight! The inimitable Mary Jane Watson, from the Spider-Man comics. The evolution of her character is quite interesting. She started out as a typical Sixties party vamp, human confetti, spouting that crazy Stan Lee hip youngster lingo that today reads like a guided tour of catchphrase hell, all swinging go-go poses and cheeky dimples, but gradually she developed into a more layered character, after the death of Gwen Stacy. (The comic book genre as a whole basically evolved with the characters—grew up.) Eventually we learned that MJ’s life of headlong hedonism was really—wouldn’t you know it—a kind of exuberant escape from an abusive childhood. Everyone in the Marvel universe is traumatized one way or the other.
From that famous introduction panel on (“Face it, tiger… You just hit the jackpot!”) Mary Jane really leaped off the page, didn’t she. Her red hair matches Spider-Man’s costume the same way Doc Samson’s hair matches Hulk’s skin (what an insight), and I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t actually intended to be Peter Parker’s main love interest—surprised that Stan Lee and John Romita didn’t immediately SEE it (they kept pushing Gwen—poor MJ losing their brief dance duel). At one point Mary Jane was even pretty much written out of Peter’s life, and thus the comics, until other writers dragged her back again. Then, famously, after years of circling around each other Mary Jane married Peter, and then, just as famously, the marriage years later was annulled again by the gods at Marvel. Marvel stories are often contrived to the point of absurdism anyway of course but that particular story seemed to go for some kind of world record. (In the newspaper strip the annulment turned out to be a bad dream, so Peter and Mary Jane remained married there. Mysterio can only dream of causing so much confusion.)
There’s a neat bit of characterization in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #130 (image below, art by Ross Andru) where Mary Jane visits Peter’s apartment and casually checks out his record collection while she and Peter are talking about college. It’s such a smart bit: it’s exactly what a music lover like her would do. (She often heads for the record player, but to dance; here, it’s more subtle.) There she is, impossibly cool in her 1970s Afghan coat and platform shoes (miraculously her ankles survived the 70s), sparring a little with Peter, exchanging glib quips, while checking out an Aretha Franklin record (and leaving her fingerprints on it). She obviously longs for company. (Whenever she appears in the comic during that period she’s inviting people or being invited.) Peter however, more often than not, seems to regard her as a bit of a nuisance. He’s amused by her, but he doesn’t take her seriously. It could have gone on like that forever. Their romance only grows because Mary Jane does: she consoles Peter after Gwen’s death and at that point she stops being a caricature.
Apart from her personality, MJ’s look changed too over the years. John Romita Sr.’s original design is elegant, buoyant. Mary Jane is the sole happy creature among the super-powered heroes, the freaks, the kingpins, the lizards, the cackling leprechauns on flying skateboards, and ol’ Aunt May. (How old is Aunt May supposed to be by the way? 120? She looks like the Crypt Keeper and she always seems just one jumpscare away from death. “A squirrel! Oohhhh… my heart… Peter…”) Later artists would give MJ big aerobics hair, a bare midriff and long muscled legs, like she came out of a computer in WEIRD SCIENCE; in the hands of yet later artists she became a pouting child-woman or a big-eyed cartoony trooper constantly ready to kick ass. She has become younger I noticed, from a woman she has changed into a girl. (All the characters grew younger. When you look at the early comics, the gang (Peter, Gwen, Mary Jane, Flash, Harry, etc) all seem like old youngsters—they are your grandparents as young people.)
In the newspaper strips especially, MJ’s career was all over the place. She could be a big movie star running away from adoring fans one day and a model struggling to find work the next. Sometimes she took on regular jobs, like selling computers. At one time she worked for Kraven the Hunter, with predictable consequences. But she was always bopping along, active—alive.
The newspaper strips might actually be my favorite Spider-Man stories now that I think about it. People complain that they are so slow, reading them is like experiencing time being killed, but I like slow. I’m slow myself. (I’ve never been fast with anything in my life.) The newspaper strips were different than the comics, more Life with the Parkers than splashy superhero action; but the loose, casual storytelling has the effect of a leisurely sightseeing stroll in the Marvel universe, and I guess that just appeals to me. (The newspaper strip shows what the characters are doing when they’re not having epic adventures.)
Anyway. Whatever she was doing, Mary Jane was always trying to become famous. That was her main drive. So, it’s good to know really that there’s at least one universe where she hit the jackpot: ours.
Art by John Romita Sr. mostly, and Ross Andru. First image by Alex Saviuk (taken from one of the handbooks I think but the original was in PARALLEL LIVES). (I should probably also mention inker Mike Esposito.) That great cover art to the 1985 AMAZING SPIDER-MAN annual is by Mary Wilshire and John Romita.
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I swear to god I just do not see your posts on my feed anymore, Such a damn shame the internet's blown to crummy bits like this, And even though this site is the last bastion of decent blogging fun, It hardly works, Keep up the good content regardless, Hope you are well! 💚✨✌
Ah, thank you for your kind words. I am well. I have some stuff planned for my blog in fact; and after that, some really big things. My blog isn’t going anywhere!
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