Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Exclusive To The Bugle: The Fall of Norman Osborn!

It often came as a surprise to come across stories in Marvel's line of comics when the "Daily Bugle," the mainstay newspaper created and given life by Stan Lee in the early 1960s, was given more exposure than simply a few panels of comic relief in Amazing Spider-Man or other titles. In those early days, ASM helped to make the Bugle, along with its crack staff of reporters and its cantankerous publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, a vital part of the mag, and not simply because of Jameson's designated role as a thorn in Spider-Man's side. (Heck, in practically everyone's side.) But as Marvel branched out, the Bugle followed--its ability to take New York City's pulse, as well as its extensive coverage of the city's crime scene, often put to good use in Daredevil, ASM, and other titles whose characters confined their activities to the streets.

In some of those stories, we saw another side of Jameson on occasion--the hard-nosed newspaper man who ran the Bugle like a taut ship and whose better judgment at times needed perspective from his editor and friend, Joe Robertson, the perfect foil for Jameson's fly-off-the-handle outbursts and his bent toward persecution. "Robbie" was a needed balance for the character, someone who could keep Jameson from becoming two-dimensional and whose presence at the Bugle gave the paper integrity to Jameson's grit. With these two anchors, the Bugle evolved to become an institution in Marvel's comics over the decades. There were stories to be told by this paper, and the potential was always there to evoke a different kind of drama that didn't necessarily have to depend on costumes and powers for its backbone.

In that respect, the 2004 series The Pulse offered something different for someone like me whose collecting bug was winding down and who was sampling other titles to see if anything grabbed me. At the time, Fantastic Four was numbering in the 500s, while the 1998 Avengers run was about to come to a "disassembled" end; and suddenly, here were Jameson and Robertson, breaking ground with virtually their own comic. For this to work, the writer and artists would have to really map out the kind of bustling newspaper office and staff they wanted to present, in a format that would put us in the city room instead of Peter Parker, Betty Brant, or any of the usual suspects who were mainly passing through or taking up space. It was the Bugle that would be the center of attention, the Bugle that would have to carry the story, the reporters who would essentially drive the stories and set the pace. It was a concept that was finally going to get its day.

As to the format, well, with its cover, you've already seen part of its foundation--"The Pulse," a new supplement of the paper that cleverly pulls double duty as the comic's masthead. A few readers will probably get a sense of bits and pieces of prior Daily Bugle concepts being salvaged and folded into the Pulse; for instance, the Pulse is aimed at appeasing newspaper readers who want to see the Bugle's content feature more informative news on super-heroes, something which was attempted with "Now" Magazine:

There's also the presence of Jessica Jones at the Pulse, a super-being who no longer suits up but is hired by Jameson to offer her unique input on stories that will see print in the supplement, which borrows elements from Carol Danvers' stint as the editor of Jameson's "Woman" Magazine:

For the Pulse, writer Brian Bendis produces a more detailed, 21st century version of the Bugle, where circulation is down because the paper's editorial slant against super-heroes has grown tiresome with readers, and whose publisher must be realistic about the paper's future and bite the bullet in terms of giving readers what they want.

Needless to say, what Jessica needs from Jameson, like Carol Danvers, is a salary and benefits, which this time Jameson readily agrees to.

Bendis, together with artists Mark Bagley and Scott Hanna, appear to be the right men for the right job here, immersing the reader into this world of news and investigative reporting and, most importantly, the Daily Bugle we were seldom privileged to get a look at behind the scenes for any length of time. As this series is starting, all three are still in the middle of their well-received run on Ultimate Spider-Man, while Bendis also chronicled Daredevil as well as introduced Jessica as a P.I. in the Alias series. No doubt some of you have reservations about cracking open any project written by Bendis, whose writing style can often be frustrating to follow. Yet if you can overlook the staggered conversations between characters, the constant interruptions they engage in, the maddening loops of subject ==> irrelevant tangents ==> back to subject, all of which try like hell to typify contemporary "casual-speak"... if you can overlook such distractions, there's some good work here and some excellent character development. Jameson, while still Jameson, is less outrageous and exaggerated--more centered and seasoned. Luke Cage, as characterized by Bendis, is one of the most solid versions of Cage I've ever read (and who fit like a glove in New Avengers). Ben Urich is a roll-up-his-sleeves reporter who's been frustrated by the number the job has done on him, but who pushes on because he's a damn good reporter. And if Jameson is the Bugle's soul, then Robbie is its heart, who keeps his eye on things and doesn't hesitate to step in when needed. It's clear there's no lack of commitment in any of the creative talent involved in these first few issues, with everyone bringing their A-game.

For its debut story, the Pulse tackles no less than Norman Osborn in his role as the Green Goblin--someone the Bugle, and Urich in particular, had attempted once before to expose but were swept up in a legal firestorm for their trouble. The series' first issue only touches on what's to come, when a body is discovered in Central Park's lake, a development that its second issue would pick up on; but this first issue is devoted to establishing the Pulse itself and those who make up its core staff. We've already taken a look at Jessica and the next steps she's decided to take in her life with Cage, yet her story unfolds from the beginning of the issue--pregnant by Cage and deciding to segue to a job with more stability. Of course, with Cage's dealings with Jameson having been on a more rocky road, he has reservations about his girlfriend considering a job offer with the man.

As we've seen, Jameson's commitment to the Pulse is real, so much so that he's made quite an offer to Jessica to bring her on board in what amounts to a position as a consultant. It speaks well of his instincts; and as for Jessica, her transition from P.I. to Bugle staffer no doubt strikes those who only know her character from her Netflix series as a bit odd.

As for Urich, the cagey Jameson has a conversation with him similar to the one he had with Jessica, only this time convincing Urich that it's Jessica who will need Urich to hand-hold and motivate her so that she'll do her best work for the Pulse, whereas Jessica is under the impression that it's Urich who needs the Pulse to jump-start his work as a reporter. But Urich is equally motivated by the fact that Jameson is changing his editorial stance and giving the Bugle a different direction.

With the look and feel of the book established, the story turns to what will truly ignite it--an investigation into the death of the young woman found in Central Park, a person who just the day before was a new Bugle reporter who was desperate to find a story that would appease Jameson's expectations of her. And so Terri Kidder takes a lunch with her friend Sheryl, who works at the Oscorp company--and a casual leading question from Terri has her very nervous and shaken-up friend spilling details that could land Terri her first big scoop for her new boss.

Since Terri was already working on a "100 most powerful people in NYC" story, it made sense to use that angle in order to go straight to the source and hope that Osborn would have a statement and/or reaction when she smoothly changed the subject to these reports of missing persons within his company. Unfortunately for Terri, she receives both.

Terri is subsequently choked to death--and we finally circle back to the realization that it's her body that the Goblin has dropped from the sky into the Central Park reservoir.

What happens following the identification of Terri's body is a somber meeting at the Bugle where the news is delivered of the death of one of their own--a death by mysterious circumstances which suggest foul play, and one which Jameson and Robertson will leave no stone uncovered in order to learn the truth behind. It would have been interesting to see Jameson be the one to brief his reporters on this development and rally them to solving the mystery of Terri's killer--but at the last moment, he asks Robbie to make the briefing, perhaps due to how harshly he dressed Terri down in front of everyone and how he might have felt responsible for what happened to her afterward. Jameson doesn't seem like the kind of man who would be overwhelmed in such a way; on the contrary, the incident would have been more likely to marshal his determination and make him resolute to get to the bottom of it.  Regardless, Robbie steps up and handles the matter with aplomb, easily commanding the respect of everyone present.

And so Urich and fellow writer Kat Farrell begin canvassing for information. Kat's contact at the morgue tells her that Terri was strangled at the hands of a powerful male, and that she was dropped into the reservoir from a great height. Later, Urich discovers an unheard message on Terri's answering machine from Sheryl, begging Terri to forget anything Sheryl told her--a message which we can presume arrived after Urich's blunt encounter with a police detective working the case.

With Urich realizing that Sheryl is an employee at Oscorp, and that people have gone missing from a company headed by a powerful man that Urich knows in his gut is the Green Goblin, old ghosts of Urich's prior dealings with Osborn come back to haunt him once more which can't help but remind him of his failure to bring Osborn to justice. That leads him to have a conversation with Peter Parker, whom Urich some time ago discovered is a costumed hero--one who had extensive dealings with Osborn's sinister alter-ego.

Osborn has indeed changed the landscape of his criminal activities, having expanded his profile to include indiscriminate murder--something that neither Spider-Man nor Urich is willing to let stand. To make things a little more interesting in this discussion, Bendis makes a point of Spider-Man bringing up the fact that Osborn suffers from schizophrenia--that in the past, Osborn and the Goblin have been like two separate people. But Urich distills everything down to three words: "He's a killer." And it's that conclusion that makes both Spider-Man and Urich turn the corner and decide to follow through on bringing Osborn to justice.

In Urich's case, his first stop is to interview Sheryl--to inform her of Terri's death, and to obtain the details of their conversation regarding the missing people at Oscorp. From there, it will be up to the police to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Osborn, once they examine Urich's evidence; but the real call will be Jameson's, who must decide whether he can back Urich's play to once again confront a man who has already outmaneuvered such an attack against him and who nearly buried the Bugle in the process. It's a dramatic moment that needs no costumed heroes to deliver its impact.

Jessica is no doubt receiving first-hand exposure to newspaper ethics converging in a heated moment where an issue is examined with justified scrutiny before the decision is reached to run the story--where Ben Urich comes back for one last swing at a wily foe who slipped through his investigative fingers once before, while Jameson puts his trust in his reporter's instincts while taking into account the frank, unbiased opinion of his new consultant that perhaps reminds him of the kind of man who built the Bugle into a force to be reckoned with. Jameson is simply at his best when he puts the story ahead of his fears and doubts--and it seems clear that he feels Jessica has earned her pay by pointing out something he likely already knew.

And so it's a formidable and intimidating mixture of police and press that arrive at the executive offices of Oscorp looking to see its C.E.O.--and, needless to say, without an appointment. But to a man like Osborn--who has allegedly been very busy recently, covering his tracks--there is no mistaking their intent, and he reacts accordingly.

It's of course the Green Goblin who emerges over and past the casualties, looking to make a clean sweep of anyone who survived his initial strike. Jessica, hurled through the window by another explosion, is saved by Spider-Man, but fears the incident has killed her unborn child and becomes enraged with thoughts of revenge. Inside, it's a given that the injured Urich is of personal interest to the Goblin--yet while Spider-Man is able to save him as well, he isn't able to prevent the Goblin's escape. That dubious honor falls to Jessica, who is more than willing to again immerse herself in the role of a super-being in order to retaliate against the one she believes has cost her the life of her child. It's a violent chain of events that doesn't end well for anyone--even the Goblin, who escapes but is now a hunted man.

Later, at the hospital, Jessica and Cage are relieved to find that her child is still alive and doing well--but it goes without saying that Cage is headed out to find the Goblin and do who-knows-what to him. In the interim, the Bugle runs its story--while Osborn has decided to surrender himself to the authorities, with his attorney present and chomping at the bit to take on the case. With Osborn leaving the courthouse, we can only assume that the D.A. failed to have bail denied, perhaps due to the fact that Osborn turned himself in and demonstrated he's not a flight risk. But while we get the sense that his lawyer is capable of making a fight of it and possibly even prevailing at trial, even he has no clue as to the mental state of his client at present--something he and everyone assembled will soon become aware of.

With Cage's attack, Osborn drops all pretense and makes a fight of it--elbowing his startled lawyer aside like so much trash and reaching for his cache of Goblin equipment to deploy two bombs that Cage, as well as the arriving Spider-Man, handle before they explode in the crowd. But the distraction serves its purpose, as the Goblin bolts--for all the good it will do him against a fighting-mad Cage.

The entire scene of course has served to not only expose Osborn as the Goblin for all to see, but vindicate the Daily Bugle, where its staff takes a few moments to drink in a well-deserved victory lap before Jameson, like the veteran he is, brings these professionals back down to Earth and coaxes everyone back to business. Urich, no doubt, is especially elated... relieved... gratified... any number of emotions running through his head at this moment, a long road of frustration finally behind him. Jameson knows what he has in Urich, even if he wasn't able to convince the man to reveal the one piece of information that would have been a windfall for the Bugle, a choice that has earned Jameson's grudging admiration regardless.

I'm sorry to say The Pulse, published bi-monthly, would have a run of just fourteen issues, taking us through the birth of Jessica's child before it closed up shop. And though Bagley and Hanna would depart following the Goblin story, Bendis would write the series for its duration--while Cage and Jessica would segue afterward to join Bendis in the pages of New Avengers following the events of Civil War, though not before Jessica would quit her position at the Bugle to return to Alias Investigations. In the late 2000s, such fluctuations in titles and characters seemed to be the new normal at Marvel, as the business transitioned into something much different than what came before--a near-constant practice of shuffling which you get a sense is becoming standard procedure if you read Bendis's notes in the final issue of The Pulse. Bendis felt The Pulse successfully ran its course, and perhaps it did--though by the end, there wasn't much of the Bugle or the Pulse in the book, or Jessica's role therein, aside from appearances by Urich and Farrell. The Pulse, as conceived, is a series that somehow slipped away from its own writer--and IMHO, this post may have contained its best work, as well as the only sign of its potential.

The Pulse #s 1-5

Script: Brian Bendis
Pencils: Mark Bagley
Inks: Scott Hanna
Letterer: Cory Petit


Iain said...

Thanks for posting this, you helped me understand the Jessica Jones character better and I may even pick up some reprint collections of this now to further my knowledge. ^^

Comicsfan said...

My pleasure, Iain!