Monday, December 14, 2009

Our Comics Decade: 2000

I’ve given the cliff notes version here before, but after my high school graduation from Newton South in the spring of 2000, I migrated about two hours south to matriculate at Connecticut College. Conn used to be an all-girls school up until about the 70’s and thus it comes as no surprise that the only two people I knew from high school going in were girls—both very cool individuals, but neither a person I saw watching wrestling with me on Monday nights. Factor in that the girl I was dating at the time was going to school at Trinity—only about 45 minutes away, but neither of us had a car—and I found myself in the familiar situation of being psyched for college, but quickly going from the “I have so many friends!” rush that senior year at high school brings to the “I have nobody to eat dinner with” low that accompanies your freshman year at college.

Fortunately, I did have my interest in various extracurricular activities to fall back on when it came to meeting friends. While there was no wrestling team at Conn (and frankly my surgically reconstructed shoulder and torn up ankles were grateful for that), I did continue my interest in theater, and as a result met an outgoing giant (seriously, he’s like 6’5”) named Jordan Geary who would become my best friend in college and introduce me to most of the other folks I’d grow to consider my family away from home.

An interesting tidbit myself, Jordan and our friend Chris Everson discovered during one late night chat was that we’d all been hardcore comic book geeks in our younger years, but had each lapsed during high school in favor of not being shunned by the social majority (which still only like half worked). We found we shared a mutual love of the X-Men and immediately took to looking up clips of the old cartoon online and deciding which team members us and each of our crew most closely matched for nickname purposes (I was Iceman, Jordan was Cyclops, Chris was Wolverine, and we literally came up with dozens more for pretty much everybody we even casually interacted with).

Seeing as we had a big awesome freaking comic store a five minute drive away (and Jordan had a car), regular trips to Sarge’s became a foregone conclusion. When I first entered the store and gradually got past the overwhelming feeling of being a obsessive nerd away from his element for nearly five years, I made a beeline to the section housing the X-Men titles, eager to learn what I had missed since dropping out of the scene in 1996 with the end of the Onslaught saga.

The first title I vividly remember purchasing in my second life as a comic book fan was Uncanny X-Men #390, written by Scott Lobdell with art by Salvador Larroca and featuring no less an event than the death of Colossus. It was a deceptively welcoming comic to come back to, as Colossus was an old favorite, Lobdell was the same writer I remembered from my youth, and Larroca’s style was tight and colorful ala Jim Lee or Andy Kubert. Even the main thrust of the issue’s plot involved curing the Legacy Virus, a plot device I had seen the birth of at the conclusion of my beloved X-Cutioner’s Song.

In an interesting parallel to being away at school for the first time, that first issue of Uncanny X-Men was like coming home and finding your room exactly as you had left it (it was also a darn fine issue, as Lobdell always did know how to wring the pathos from a heroic sacrifice and write the “X-Men as a family” stuff decently rather than them just being a military-style strike force).

However, to follow the same analogy, in the subsequent visits I paid back “home” over the next several months, the more and more the furniture seemed to get moved around, and not particularly to my liking.

Grant Morrison and his New X-Men revamp were well in the hype stages even as I was trying to piece together what had become of the Blue and Gold teams. Picking up Wizard (another ritual I was glad to return to) and seeing Frank Quitely’s proposed visual re-imaginings of Beast (he’s a cat?!), Wolverine (no mask?!) and Emma Frost (…huh?!) certainly did not deliver the nostalgic comfort food of bright costumes, big action and ill-defined energy powers I was looking for. Indeed, I found those first few issues of New X-Men so distasteful to my old school 90’s palate that I was about ready to throw in the towel and get back out of comics no sooner than I’d returned. Fortunately for me (and all of you who enjoy this blog, I guess), that aforementioned at-the-time girlfriend got me a subscription for Christmas that year, meaning Grant and I were stuck with one another at least for a bit.

Bringing my little comparison to what will hopefully be a poignant or at least sensible close, I gradually learned to appreciate—or at least tolerate—Morrison’s different approach to the X-Men and also to sample new comics I would never have thought to try as a kid, which of course paid off big-time in the long run for me. I would have to take the same approach to college itself, learning not to focus all the time on how it wasn’t high school and instead come to find all the neat new stuff that I had to look forward to.

Today I can go back and actually enjoy New X-Men because I’ve got such a broader view of what comics can be and how they evolve. Similarly (I think?), I ended up becoming closer with most of the friends I made in college than I ever did with my old pals from high school.

At the time, comics ranged from a fun hobby for me to a survival aspect I utilized to feel safe in a new place; I had no idea that my decision to start reading X-Men again in 2000 would end up being one of the biggest turning points in my life.

In 2000, I was a senior in high school and allowed myself $20 a week maximum to spend on comics. It's weird thinking back to a time when I didn't buy trade paperbacks online (if at all) - and how I got my hands on comics in general. Like a squirrel burying acorns in a rain storm, I'd hold on tightly to any books I bought, even if I eventually thought they sucked. By the time I dismantled my collection so my parents could sell their house in 2008, I had the equivalent of 12 long boxes and maybe 30 collected editions and original graphic novels back in the room I grew up in. That's why it's all the more impressive that I bought Warren Ellis's four Stormwatch trades in 2000.

I'd just finished reading Sandman through collected editions and that mission had taken almost 2 years and (what was at the time to me) lots of money. But my comic shop was cool about ordering stuff for me in advance and letting me pay for it as I picked up each new collection. That's why it was no hard task to talk myself into trying Stormwatch. At the time, I didn't know Warren Ellis's work at all and just knew that I read in Wizard that the title was fun and weird. Unlike most people my age, I'd never really gotten into Image at any point in my life, so I didn't know dick about Stormwatch or the WildStorm universe. I was a blank slate.

But over the course of January through December that year, as I wrestled with what college to go to, graduated high school, said goodbye to almost all my friends, moved myself into my dorm and started college living with a cockhead jock-turd of a roommate, the high-octane action-adventure sci-fi superhero bonanza of Stormwatch rocketed my notions of what could be done with spandex heroes into subspace eternity. In the first fucking issue, Ellis fires half the team and introduces new characters who went on to become cornerstones of the WildStorm universe. People got their jaws punched off, the leader wound up being the bad guy, several of the characters DIED in battle, they traveled to an alternate reality and introduced the Bleed (an updated version of the Multiverse), and, in the final volume of the regular series, a Superman-level hero returns to active duty after a self-imposed exile to round up a crew of partners to tell the world they better behave or the super heroes are gonna MAKE you behave. I'd never seen anything like this!

And the continuity! Ideas, themes and concepts debut throughout the run that later played into the Authority and Planetary, two books also written by Ellis and that I also bought in trade. And not just red sky continuity, I'm talking about stuff like the Superman-level hero I mentioned cameo-ing as a conversation piece in Planetary or how the mechanical blood of a bad guy in one arc was used to create the Engineer in the Authority. Or how a Green Lantern-esque character is hunted down and murdered in Planetary, but his lantern later shows up as a weapon wielded by a member of the covert operation that gave birth to Apollo and Midnighter in Stormwatch. I'm a sucker for tiny continuity nods that don't call attention to themselves and are directed at those paying attention - and this book is filled with them.

The tongue-in-cheek style of Ellis's later work hasn't really appealed to me, but this earnest superhero epic not only naturally built my love for the WildStorm universe, it showed me that superhero tales could be more than cookie-cutter stories at a time when my mind was looking for expansion in all the forms of art I was most interested in. And by expanding what was done with superheroes on a personal and wide-screen level, I credit Ellis alongside guys like Bendis for introducing the kind of radical ideas in the early 2000s that helped revive the aging mainstream scene by trying new things and for paving the way for that genre's fandom to change their visual prescriptions from following JUST artists to finally faithfully following writers.

I'm not usually one to attribute any extra significance to supposed "milestone" occasions in time from the simple changing of years or the turning of significant birthdays to the conclusion of decades. Still, even I can't ignore that a lot changed in my life in 2000. I graduated from high school that spring, which comes with enough drama, awkwardness, excitement, fear, stress and joy without being a comic nerd even coming into it. Luckily though, my personal life and my comics life collided in a pretty significant way back then.

Towards the end of my senior year, I started dating this girl named Laura Gutierrez. She was a year behind me in school and a friend of a friend, but for some reason I never really met her until sometime around that winter. I always thought that a little STRANGE as she was someone who was extremely smart and unpretentious in a way few people (certainly not this guy) are at that age. We hit it off pretty quickly and were fast on our way to the kind of brief, crazy, doomed relationship that you can only have when you're a teenager.

When school ended that year, Laura was set to fly to Finland for the summer on some kind of foreign exchange student program, and by the time she returned I'd be away to East Lansing for college. Faced with the choice of whether or not to date knowing full well that we weren't going to try and make anything out of it once she left, we totally went for it. It was one of those go to a lot of parties but ignore your friends, get caught making out in your parents basement, go park on a dead end street and lay next to each other on uncomfortable reclining car chairs talking about everything and nothing in intense marathon sessions for hours on end kind of things.

And at some point in this long string of dramatically impassioned yet timed to expire conversations, we talked for a while about comics and my impractical plan to try to work in them some day. And at one point Laura looks at me and says, "I have something you should read. It's kind of like a comic. At least I think it is."

Then she gave me her copy of Craig Thompson's Good-Bye, Chunky Rice.

At that stage in my comics-reading life, I'd been reading comics outside the superhero mainstream for a while, but most of them still fell into that "published as a monthly serial with some vague adventure ties" category like Bone and Skeleton Key or at least something with a certain level of reality to it like Palooka-Ville. To be that age at that moment and have my girlfriend drop Thompson's lavishly rendered, formally playful graphic novel on my head was a mind-blower (and to the professed comics expert in me more than a little embarrassing).

More importantly, the story hit me in a way that I'll honestly admit I couldn't even comprehend at the time. More than any other comic I've ever read, Chunky Rice draws out the sad, strange, sweet set of emotions and experiences that accompany letting someone fall out of your life. From the titular character's painful choice to leave his best friend Dandele through the tragic fable of Solomon and Stomper to all the bizarrely forlorn characters Chunky meets on Captain Chuck's boat, every thread Thompson spins in the story echo that feeling of loss and in their own way the bittersweet joy that comes with accepting the fact that though the ones you love may be out of your life, they're still with you in other ways.

It took me a long time to process everything that book made me feel, partly because at the time I was so far up my own ass I wasn't confronting the very obvious parallels to my own situation and relationships (hooray for being 18!) and partly because when you're still so close to letting so much go to try something bigger, it feels like you'll never get beyond the worst feelings to appreciate the best ones.

All in all, knowing that girl and having that story with me in 2000 helped me through the next ten years in ways that I'm still insanely grateful for and hope to never let go of completely.


Rickey said...

I'm jealous Kiel read Chunky Rice in high school. I always wondered where I'd be as a reader if, like some people I've spoken to, I had an older brother figure who passed me books by Clowes or issues of Raw or Acme Novelty Library when I was in high school.

And Ben, I only ever bought X-Men comics twice in my life: Once when Age of Apocalypse was kicking off and so 7th grader Rickey bought Legion Quest and the first issues of all the minis. The second time was for the entirety of New X-Men which I loved and hated at different times and then finally appreciated wholly after Kiel explained that the run was about deconstructing the different genres that have been used to make up the X-Men since the start and using each in a separate chapter during Grant's run.

But, man, on the surface? The idea of crazy mutants running around fighting other mutants is SO FUCKING NEAT.

Vanja said...

Heh, Iceman

generalpervaizmusharraf said...

In my view every person ought to look at it.