Monday, November 16, 2009

The Chronicles of Heroes

I’ve always liked comic books. I began reading fantasy and sci-fi novels by around 5th grade or thereabouts (definitely not later, but quite possibly sooner), but by that time I had already been reading comic books for some time. I’ve written before about how I loved to haunt the Westvale Plaza shopping center, and one of my regular destinations was the Stop & Swap bookstore. In addition to shelf after shelf of used books, the Stop & Swap had quite a few boxes of used comics. Among them were some truly awful titles from the 60s and 70s, such as the very thick “Superman Family” comics – stories of Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and, I kid you not, their super-dog and super cat, as well as a host of villains bent on marginally inconveniencing the world.

I’m often amazed at some of the truly insipid titles I used to greatly enjoy – comics of that era hadn’t woken up to themselves, yet, and were often mired in trite, repetitive, unimaginative and just plain awful stories. I can’t begin to say how many times I read the “origin” stories of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the others, which often seemed to be repeated in nearly every issue.

What also surprises me is the truly dizzying array of comic titles I read, and yet I somehow missed the Uncanny X-Men and a few other titles that were trying to introduce a level of excellence in writing and dialogue that the comics of the era were lacking. Still, I read just about everything else – I was particularly fond of Superman, Batman, the Justice League of America, Green Lantern & Green Arrow and various related titles (like Black Canary and the Flash, for instance). I loved ROM, Space Knight and was very disappointed when it was canceled. I liked the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and I remember dabbling in Thor and the Silver Surfer (who was brand new at the time). I never got into The Avengers for some reason, and read very little Iron Man, but I was a big fan of the Legion of Super Heroes – a group of teen heroes from the Metropolis of the distant future, who included a time-traveling Superboy and a good-aligned Braniac among their members. But I’m not too proud to admit that Superman Family wasn’t the only crapola that I read – I vividly remember collecting Plastic Man for quite some time, even though I can’t conceive that I might possibly have overlooked that fact that it was terrible.

Comics served as a gateway for me – an introduction to more substantial works of fiction. I read comics avidly for probably around seven or eight years, but by the time I reached my teens I had outgrown the cheap, vapid storytelling of the comics I’d been reading. True, there were some titles around in the late 70s and early 80s that were trying to rise above the mindlessness that had tended to dominate the comics industry for so long – at least since the inception of the Comics Code had served to self-outlaw such a wide array of interesting plot devices and concepts – but as I’d said those weren’t the comics I was reading. I probably tended to gravitate either to those titles I was already comfortable with, or to those with the flashiest covers (or both – if given a choice between two flashy covers, I was certainly going to pick Supes or Green Lantern over Magneto and the X-Men, because I didn’t have a clue what an X-Man was, but I knew Green Lantern’s creed by heart. “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil's might, beware my power... Green Lantern's light!” See? I still know it! Plus I Googled it to be sure I had it right.).

So I have a fond place in my heart for comics, even if my early love-affair with them was largely temporary. My family moved when I was almost fourteen, and at our pre-moving garage sale I sold my entire comics collection for what I vaguely recall was a pittance. I suppose this beats all of the guys out there whose mothers threw away their comics when they went off to college, but it’s still a touch disappointing. In amongst all of the crap there must surely have been some quality comics in that box.

It would be nearly ten years before I picked up another comic. That’s right, I entirely missed the comics of the 1980s, which is when comics really began to think for the first time. I was inspired to begin collecting once again in the early 1990s for primarily two reasons. First, my best friend Bill had gotten into comics in a big way, and his enthusiasm for them was infectious. In fact, one of the things Bill liked best was the one thing I least enjoyed even after I hopped back onto the comics bandwagon – crossovers. Bill thought nothing of picking up some 20-30 comics across four or six different titles across a year’s time in order to get an entire story. You see, a publisher like Marvel would introduce a storyline, and spread the details across a whole series of individual comic book titles. In order to get the full picture, you had to buy all of the related titles. Bill thought this was great – I thought it was horribly convoluted and expensive. Regardless, I did buy into it to an extent, in part because of a Saturday Morning cartoon.

That cartoon was X-Men the Animated Series, and it was pretty good for what it was. It was relatively smart, its characters had real personalities, its villains weren’t caricatures, and it had a story arc that crossed multiple episodes. It also took some of the best storylines of the last 10+ years of the X-Men titles and brought them to the small screen. I was intrigued and I found myself enthusiastically diving into comics once again. I’ve since cut back to only a couple of titles, but for a time I was taking a stack of comics away from the comic store every week or two – X-Men, Spawn, Witchblade, The Darkness (which was mostly for my wife. I don’t really remember reading it), a handful of X-Men spin-offs (though by no means all of them. Egads! There were lots and lots of X-Men comics back then) and a few others I don’t really remember just now. I still have them, though.

It was at this time that I first started to visit Comix Zone, which has been my comics store of choice ever since. I’ve watched owner Greg Van Camp grow his business during that time. I remember the store I first visited, which was just a straight run back from the door, with a counter on the left and several rows of tables stuffed with comics. I remember every December Greg would have a “Christmas Blow-Out” party, where a large group of comics geeks would gather around while Greg bestowed prizes and give-aways upon them. I was one of those geeks, obviously, or I wouldn’t be familiar with the ritual. I remember Greg’s shop doubling in size as he absorbed the store next to his. And more recently, I remember Greg moving across the street three and a half years ago to an even larger space with room for all sorts of non-comic merchandise as well as gaming tables in the back where regular customers would play various role-playing games, collectible card games and wage great battles between mighty little miniatures. And through this entire time, I’ve maintained a subscription to a list of comic titles that has changed quite a bit over the twelve or thirteen years that I’ve been a customer there.

For a big chunk of that time, I registered my protest against rampant crossovers by maintaining a subscription to one title that was guaranteed to never cross over – Marvel’s What If? comic. The concept behind this title was an investigation of alternate possibilities within the Marvel universe. Granted, by not reading every possible Marvel title I didn’t always fully grasp the full meaning of these alternate storylines, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. In part because most were fairly accessible – what if character X had been a bad guy instead of a good guy was pretty straightforward, after all. But also in part because they were self-contained stories that tended to turn the “known” world on its head. Anything could happen in a What If? comic, and I really enjoyed them. They’ve popped back up from time to time, but the comic as a regular title ended in the late 1990s.

These days, I subscribe to only a couple of titles. My subscription list essentially boils down to “Anything written by Babylon 5 Creator J. Michael Straczynski” plus the Dark Tower series based on the books by Stephen King. Since Straczynski is only writing Thor at the moment (and The Twelve, which is on some sort of hiatus), I’m currently just getting two titles. But whether I’m getting two or twenty comics, one thing is certain – they’re not the same kinds of books I used to read as a kid. Where the comics of the 70s had heroes who were unswervingly heroic and villains who were usually evil for no other reason than evil’s sake, modern comics are filled with all of the ambiguities and human foibles you’d expect to find in any decent novel. And so the years trek forward and I read the stories and look at the artistry as the tales are spun out thirty or so pages at a time, month after month after month. And I lose myself, for a little while, in the chronicles of heroes.

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