Friday, November 6, 2009

A Second Look: Gerry Conway

Recently it’s come to my attention that legendary Marvel writer and former EIC Gerry Conway has been the target of some online vitriol. For instance, one writer said that seeing Conway’s name in the credits “makes me want to burn my whole comic collection”. Then, this same person commented that another story “makes so little sense I suspect it was written by Gerry Conway.” Well, enough is enough. I decided to find out just who this online assassin is so I could confront him about these unwarranted attacks.

Now, at last, this person’s identity can be revealed: okay, it was me.

In the spirit of fairness, however, I’ve decided it’s only right to come to Mr. Conway’s defense and present a list of detailed reasons showing that Conway not only was a good writer but that I actually have been a fan of his all along and just didn’t know it. Who knows, maybe you’re a Conway fan too and didn’t know it either.

Before we get into the reasons behind Conway’s recent resurgence (that is, in my own mind) we should probably examine the reasons why I thought I disliked Conway to begin with, because upon closer inspection they don’t necessarily make sense, a common criticism of my thought process to be sure. And most of it has to do with the mighty Avengers.

Now, I’m not the biggest Steve Englehart fan in the world (I know plenty of people that think he’s like a cross between Jesus and Elvis) but I respect his work on Avengers. He gave us classic stuff like the Avengers-Defenders War, the Celestial Madonna saga and the Serpent Crown affair. All great stories. And then he was unceremoniously dumped from the book; the way I always heard it told, Englehart was removed because Conway thought the EIC should write a flagship book so he kicked Englehart off to give Avengers to himself. Which sounds just a wee bit douchey, especially since he left the book less than a year later without having the time to really justify the move from a story perspective.

Recently, though, I’ve heard that this change was in fact prompted in large part due to production delays and missed deadlines. Now, I don’t know the truth, but you know, what difference does it make. That’s their business. The only effect it’s really had on me is that those Conway issues (which I was never a huge fan of) and the apocryphal story behind them became the sole basis for my opinion of Conway. And that pretty much guaranteed it was a low opinion.

Here’s the crazy thing, though: some of my favorite comics growing up were by Conway, only I never realized it. Recently when going through my back issues, I realized again and again that Conway, who I had been unfairly maligning, was actually responsible for a lot of really cool stuff. And while it doesn’t all float my boat – anyone that was writing as many titles as Conway was is sure to have some misses – I’ve certainly developed a better appreciation of him. And then there’s this fact: a lot of the stuff that I don’t like from Conway was written before his 21st birthday. I mean, I popped open an issue of Astonishing Tales the other day and there was a Conway Ka-Zar story that he wrote when he was 17. 17! I think that that age I was still doodling the Human Torch on my notebook in math class. Hell, he was only 20 when he wrote the classic Death of Gwen Stacy storyline in Amazing Spider-man.

So while I’m still not quite ready to join the Official Conway Fan Club, I’m now at least willing to admit that such an organization would be justified in existing. I have to admit, the guy had chops. Plus, I recently added him on facebook and he looks like your neighbor’s dad, the one who paid you ten bucks to rake his yard so you could save up for that Huffy. And how can you hate on that guy?

And so, without further ado, here are my Three Reasons to Appreciate Gerry Conway:

3) Thor. Recently I’ve been putting together a collection of Thor back issues and I’ve learned that, while Thor has had several solid runs it has also had very few truly classic eras after Lee and Kirby. Because of this, the series sometimes tends to get overlooked, which means that entertaining, fun work from people like Conway gets forgotten. During his tenure on the book, Thor had a few truly memorable moments, such as the introduction of Firelord during a nice Galactus story. More importantly, Conway did a lot of work on and with Thor’s supporting cast to the point where it almost seemed like a team book. Whether it was the Warriors Three, Recorder, Tana Nile or Hercules, someone was always around to play off Thor and help him out in a pinch. The buddy book feel of the Hercules era was particularly memorable, basically saving the character from obscurity, and it’s interesting that much of the later DeFalco run (prior to the introduction of Thunderstrike) is almost an homage to the Gerry Conway era. Conway also did some interesting stuff with Sif (merging her with Jane Foster) and Odin (having him renounce his godhood to learn about humanity). The only downside really is that some stories that should have been all-time classics, such as Loki invading Earth with an army of Asgardians, fell a little flat. But overall it was a very nice and sadly underappreciated run.

2) Atari Force. Speaking of underappreciated, Atari Force is a fantastic sci-fi series that never seems to have gotten its due. Yes, the main bad guy, Baron Garza – er, I mean Dark Destroyer – sometimes had a bit of a resemblance to Darth Vader (like seemingly all sci-fi villains for the two decades following Star Wars). But the cast and character work in Atari Force is fantastic. This is a series that I loved as a kid, yet somehow I never realized until a recent re-read that it was Gerry Conway who was providing all the joy. Oh, to think of the years of anti-Conway misunderstanding that could have been avoided if only I had known this at the time.

1) Foom. You know, sometimes I’m not sure just what they were doing in Foom. Despite the fact that they were advertising the fan club to all comers, it really seemed to be aimed at a more mature sub-section of the reading public than to the masses of kids buying comics at that time. For instance, in Foom #6 there’s a cartoon showing a superhero leaving a whorehouse, while in Foom #7 there’s a long discussion about whether Vision has functioning junk, which seems to be some sort of obsession with some people (*cough *John Byrne *cough*); this article even includes a suggestion that Ultron had secretly stolen sperm from Jarvis and stocked Vision with it. Um… WTF?

Taking the cake, though, is a brilliant article in Foom #8 where, in place of the usual coming attractions, the staff of Foom went around and interviewed members of the Marvel bullpen asking them what they had in store. It’s one of the coolest glimpses into the world of Marvel I’ve ever read and a brilliant snapshot on the personalities of the era (which I will explore in more detail in an upcoming post). All of the other interviews pale in comparison to the brief encounter with Gerry Conway, however. In the space of just a few short lines Conway manages to trash both Foom and his own bosses (who are standing right there) as well as by implication Stan Lee himself. It’s an all time classic. Take a look:

And there you have it, three great reasons to appreciate Gerry Conway. And after all this, if you still don’t like him, well, I think Mr. Conway said it best: “you can (expletive deleted).”

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Judging Conway strictly by his Avengers work would be a lot like judging Geoff Johns by *his* Avengers work.