Jul 15, 2012

The Metamorphosis of Dr. Kafka

With issue 185, J.M. DeMatteis took the reins of Spectacular Spider-Man, kicking his run off with the dark, creepy The Child Within, a story that focused on Harry Osborn becoming the Green Goblin again, and on the escape of the cannibalistic rat-man, Vermin.  In the first few pages, we're introduced to Vermin's therapist, Dr. Ashley Kafka.  As seen here, Dr. Kafka is pretty clearly middle-aged.

" - get six figures worth of plastic surgery before my next appearance!"
(Spectacular Spider-Man #184, written by J.M. DeMatteis, art by Sal Buscema)

She kept turning up beyond that story, and became a full-blown Spider-Man supporting character.  And it is not a good thing to be a Spider-Man supporting character.  All sorts of things can happen to you; you could become a supervillain, or you could marry a supervillain, or your son might become a werewolf, or maybe you'll just get chucked off a bridge and die.  But something even stranger happened to Dr. Kafka.

As befits a supporting character, we even got a look into Dr. Kafka's past in the Death of Vermin storyline.  In a flashback said to occur 40 years ago (and make note of that) we see how a young Ashley had to take care of her severely disabled sister and her apathetic mother.

(Spectacular Spider-Man #196, written by J.M. DeMatteis, art by Sal Buscema)

Ashley's...what, maybe 14 here?  Making her 54 in the present, which gibes with her artistic depiction.  All pretty straightforward.

But then she became the head of the Ravencroft Institute, and she was all over the Spider-books, of which there were four at the time.  For a time in the '90s, Ravencroft basically became Spider-Man's Arkham Asylum, housing some of his craziest foes - Carnage, the Jackal, Carrion, the Chameleon...of course, it was run by the wholly sane Dr. Kafka instead of the succession of lunatics they keep putting in charge of Arkham.  Spider-Man was there all the time, either to drop people off or to to quell one of the asylum's numerous escapes.  And even though keeping tabs on a dozen insane super-villains might be expected to give one a few more gray hairs, it did wonders for the good doctor.

I don't think the cobra-hood look is really working for you, Ash.  Maybe something looser?
(Amazing Spider-Man #390, written by J.M. DeMatteis, art by Mark Bagley and Randy Emberlin)

She started getting a little less frumpy, and a little less old, and a little more hot.  She even ditched the unflattering haircut and shapeless white coat for something a little more befitting a younger woman.  Heck, Our Pal Sal, who co-created her, started giving her an unlined face and shapely gams.

Yeah, that's better.
(Spectacular Spider-Man #217, written by Tom DeFalco, art by Sal Buscema)

Even the Jackal, whose tastes obviously tend towards the Nabokovian end of the spectrum, had to compliment her.

"And you too will pay, for having our therapy sessions under this giant spotlight."
(Spider-Man #57, written by Howard Mackie, art by John Romita Jr. and Joe Rubinstein)

And eventually, we got to this.

Of course, Luke Ross is Brazilian.  This is what a middle-aged Brazilian woman looks like.
(Spectacular Spider-Man #241, written by J.M. DeMatteis, art by Luke Ross and John Stanisci)

So we can write this off as just the artists wanting to draw a more attractive character, with the odd bit of dialogue to smooth things over.  But her relative youthfulness became a plot point when J.M. DeMatteis hooked her up with Ravencroft security director and former astronaut werewolf John Jameson!  Now, John Jameson isn't that young.  He's an astronaut, after all - NASA's youngest astronaut was Sally Ride, who first went up at age 32.  This is of course different in the Marvel universe, where Reed Richards took his girlfriend's teenage brother into space because hey, there was an extra seat.  But still, we can probably say John's in his 30s.  So it would be kind of weird for him to date the old Ashley Kafka, but heck, the new Ashley may very well be younger than he is.

(They eventually broke up off-panel after they were both fired due to Ravencroft's atrocious escape record.  John ended up marrying the She-Hulk while she was under the influence of space-date-rapist Starfox.)

So what happened here?  Was there an editorial directive to make the doctor a younger, more relatable character?  Did the artists just gradually forget that she was supposed to be old, and the writers eventually played along?  Or is there something more sinister at play here?

If my extensive viewings of Law and Order have taught me anything, it's that criminal psychiatrists meet with the district attorney all the time - and probably do so even more in the Marvel U, where criminals frequently suffer from insanity induced by gamma rays, super-serums, and demonic possession.  The DA of New York City in the Marvel U during Kafka's tenure at Ravencroft was Blake Tower.  Here's his handsome mug as of 1995, when he was prosecuting Peter Parker for murder (long story - a clone did it).

(Web of Spider-Man #126, art by Roy Burdine and Randy Emberlin)

And here he is, prosecuting Bucky Barnes, in 2011 - which I remind you is at most a couple years later in Marvel time.

(Captain America #614, art by Butch Guice) 
Jeez.  That guy had a rough couple years...or Ashley Kafka is a youth-leeching life vampire!  You decide, dear reader.

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