Friday, December 18, 2009

Our Comics Decade: 2001

College, man.


I'm pretty sure that there's nothing I could write about my first year of college that would sound meaningful or important. I mean, I'm pretty fucking sure that 99% of Americans couldn't write something meaningful or important about their first year of college. But I'm also sure that anything close to feeling that epic for me came along at a time when I was not what doctors would call sober. At least in all the clich├ęd hijinx, there were some pretty fun comics around and fun people to read them with.

I lived in this dormitory at Michigan State called Abbot Hall, which – besides being across the street from the 7-Eleven with the most Slurpee sales and variety (8 flavors rotated weekly with a calendar to tell you what was coming) of any location in America – was generally awesome for having rooms set aside for other arts and letters majors. That meant damn near everyone on my floor was studying English or Theater or Art or Drug Use or whatever. Amongst my new peers was a fine art major named Ariel who would aggressively tell me that superhero comics were fucking stupid compared to Battle Angel Alita whenever she had a chance and a good buddy we called Stomp who was known for wearing Morrisey t-shirts and studded collars, running the dorm's drunken Dungeons & Dragons night and getting way into CrossGen.

Coinciding with our matriculation was the opening of a new comics shop in East Lansing – the very well-run 21st Century Comics & Games. For the first time ever, I had a crew bigger than me and my bud Tony heading out on Wednesday and a shop that had deep stock of independent and alternative books and The Comics Journal and even fucking trade paperbacks (a novelty then, for sure). Though with all the new material I was able to explore, one of the books that stands out most to me from that time was a Marvel superhero book: Pete Milligan and Mike Allred's X-Force.

Honestly, the series was a hard sell for me at first, even though I was a big enough Allred fan to schlep a bunch of
issues from Flint to San Diego that summer when my dad took me to Comic-Con (graduation gift!) AND bought even more at the show (Creatures of the Id #1 FTW!) for autographs. Still. Something about the whole "NuMarvel" approach of tearing up lame duck franchises I'd never read by putting entirely new characters in them (see also) felt really hammy and lame. It probably didn't help that this particular case of trying to make Marvel feel "edgy" again was Mike Allred drawing MOTHER FUCKING X-FORCE.

But I tried the whole thing out after hearing about how Allred's art helped make the gruesome "death of half the new team" opening chapter more satire than shock value. The vibrant pop art feel of he and his indispensable colorist/wife Laura certainly defined how the series was breaking from the "gritty splash page" mentality out the gate, but what kept me plugged in was Milligan's character work.

Plenty have written about the media satire and conspiracy threads Milligan weaved throughout the run, but what brought me back each month was the honest and brutal way he portrayed the team's flaws and emotions. With names like U-Go Girl and Phat and plots revolving around publicity campaigns, this X-Force could have easily been a camped up comedy fest, but the characters were always played straight. Vivisector and Phat weren't portrayed as Broadway-loving, fashion-conscious stereotypes. They were two gay men living under the extremely fucked up scrutiny of the public eye. The Anarchist's tough guy attitude saw a chink in its armor in the form of a surprisingly subtle struggle with OCD. Best of all, the awkward, combative and ultimately tragic love between self-aware and put upon leader The Orphan and self-destructive, would-be boss Edie Sawyer provided a rock solid emotional through line for a book that was often about letting superhero tropes wildly spin out of control.

As the series progressed, Milligan did the requist amount of envelope-pushing while Allred traded off with a series of guest artists so unique yet compatible in tone that it seems a shame to call the "fill in guys." X-Force never failed to take chances with the development of its cast, making Edie's eventual death somewhat expected but no less of a total fucking gut punch.

The series eventually relaunched as X-Statix as part of the general course of the story and NuMarvel's "just try some shit" nature, and a lot of those later stories are good too (until things lost steam with the whole Princess Diana incident). Still, for me it'll always be that initial X-Force rush of shattered expectations and surprisingly strong character work that made those comics so worthwhile and fun and memorable during a time when everything was coming on so fast that it's mostly a blur now.

2001 did not start out particularly well for me.

Since I can remember, I’ve always had a weak stomach and bad nerves. For most of my childhood and young adulthood it wasn’t anything I thought was anything serious or even medical, I just got really sick from eating Chinese food sometimes and paced like a nutcase before my wrestling matches even if I was going out to collect a forfeit—that’s just how it was.

Something happened over my winter break from college during my freshman year that I still don’t fully understand and can’t entirely explain. Some switch flipped in my head and I became terrified of needing to go to the bathroom and somehow being in a situation that wouldn’t allow it. I could not ride in a car for more than five minutes out of fear I’d be “trapped.” I refused to eat for days at a time and ended up losing about 25 pounds. Additionally, I began having episodes lasting as long as half an hour where I’d go into a blind panic, breathing heavily and barely able to communicate, fearful that somehow my life would never be “normal” again.

I ended up missing the start of my second semester as I ran through a battery of unpleasant tests that tried to determine what the heck was wrong with me. I celebrated my 19th birthday with my very first colonoscopy (I’ll never forget the sad look on the nurse who was checking me in’s face when she asked for my date of birth). Nothing revealed anything.

It was at the urging of my primary doctor that I ended up sitting down for a session with a therapist, an idea that both my parents and I were both pretty hesitant about as they both had been raised in a time when such a thing was looked down upona and I personally had negative connotations associated with the practice due to growing up in a rich suburban community where a lot of kids I knew went because their own parents didn’t feel like talking to them.

However, we were at the end of our rope, so we relented.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made, as sitting down and speaking with a third party made me feel safer than I had in over a month. Pretty quickly he diagnosed me with Panic/Anxiety Disorder and began to treat me. Through consultation with the other folks I had seen, he was also able to suss out that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I was given instructions on how to deal with that.

Going to therapy was a life-changer for me, as it taught me how to deal with my problems head-on rather than hide from them. I’ve gone long periods since without being in treatment regularly, but I always find it’s nice once in awhile to take stock of where you’re at by chatting with a trained professional and getting your head on straight. Certainly therapy is not for everybody and not everybody needs it, but it’s done wonders for me, and if anybody reading this has ever thought about it but held back out of biases like the ones I had, I urge you to give it some more thought.

So over-self-sharing aside, what does all this have to do with comics?

I did make it back to school by February, but obviously it was not the easiest transition. For one thing, I didn’t know how the friends I had only made a few months ago would receive me after all this (I’d kept them caught up with the situation), but I needn’t have worried. Still, as I was still adjusting to the pressures and fears better awareness of my IBS and other conditions brought with them, things like having roommates, keeping a decent diet on cafeteria food and especially driving into town or using public transportation without being afraid. And don’t get me started on spending the weekend in the girl’s dorm at Trinity…

One of the things that helped me through this difficult transition period was of course the ability to escape into a world where the eternal battle between good and evil took center stage as opposed to mundane health problems and needing to locate the bathroom nearest to your classes.

Spending more and more time absorbed in comics naturally led to me wanting to expand my tastes; man after all can not live on X-Men alone.

I had grown up mostly a Marvel kid, with the X-Men books in particular being my poison, but I did occasionally wander over to check out the odd DC book, with the Death of Superman being a particular lure for me. However, the DC heroes had just never captured my young attention, as they seemed old (Superman was married, Green Lantern had grey hair) or trying way too hard to be cool (Aquaman had a hook for a hand, Gunfire was…Gunfire). I loved Superboy and to a lesser extent Robin and the Legion of Super-Heroes, but if I lived in the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe was more like my grandparents’ place in Cape Cod where my folks took me for a month every summer.

But as I said, at age 19, I was ready to try new stuff (in comics…pervs), so it was off to the DCU for me. JSA ended up being my gateway drug to a whole new level of the comic habit.

I was surfing Sarge’s for something to sample and the cover to JSA #27 by Rags Morales jumped out at me; I had a vague idea about the Golden Age Green Lantern and Black Adam from stuff like Zero Hour or articles in Wizard, but most of the other characters ere complete mysteries to me—mysteries with really neat costumes who Rags made look absolutely awesome.

Picking up JSA #27 revealed JSA #26, a cover with even more heroes completely foreign to me, with Hawkman, who I’d always thought of as one of the worst characters ever (everybody can fly, they just don’t all have giant cumbersome wings), standing front and center looking bad ass.

Perhaps this DC stuff I had written off years earlier had something to offer.

Because I had some disposable income from working at the school’s snack shop and needed to fill my days with something other than dwelling on my health, I snatched up half a dozen issues of JSA on a whim. By this point it was the fall of my sophomore year and I had my own room, so I was able to dive right into my new treasures without the prying eyes of roomates or unexpected visitors.

It’s definitely a bit ironic that I had shied away from DC as a kid because I thought of them as being “too old,” and yet here I was getting totally absorbed into a book headlined by some of the oldest characters of them all. But just as my teenage years had been all about youthful rebellion, pierced ears and razor stubble for me, I guess as I approached 20 and was confronted with setbacks considerably more serious than trying to sneak into R-rated movies, suddenly the idea of a place where the heroic ideal glows strong and people don’t fade away and become irrelevant as they age appealed to me a whole lot.

That’s what I found with DC. While I was still heavily into Marvel, and it’s protagonists with feet of clay, there was something beautiful about the stalwart champions of the DC Universe and the vast mythology they carried with them. At a time when optimism was what I needed most, books like JSA, Flash and Young Justice became just what the doctor ordered (along with medication and the aforementioned therapy).

And of course the coolest thing about waiting until I was in college to really discover the “other” comic company was that suddenly I had literally tens of thousands of new stories to explore. Reading JSA made me want to learn more about the other heroes of the DCU, so I picked up Batman, Superman and Titans. Reading those made me curious about DC’s past, so I hit the back issue bins for old runs of Justice League of America. Falling in love with George Perez’s art led to tracking down his full tenure on New Teen Titans with Marv Wolfman, which I have discussed at length here before. And all that led to the motherload: taking the gift certificate to New England Comics that my girlfriend’s parents gave me for Chanukah (which in retrospect I believe was their way of thumbing their noses at what they felt was my immaturity, but I could be completely off-base as they were always pretty nice to me) and using it to buy the biggest trade on the shelves: Crisis on Infinite Earths.

I wrapped up 2001 using the first half of my winter break to get lost in Crisis, mentally noting all the new (to me) characters I wanted to read more about later and thinking about what a difference a year makes.

Oh, and of course JSA also introduced me to the work of writer Geoff Johns, who would become very important not just to my fandom but my professional life as the decade rolled on, but we’ll get to that later.

It's hard to remember how I first found out about Dave Crosland. Part of me feels like I first read about the intensely stylized writer/artist in a Wizard Magazine sidebar. Part of me remembers reading Jim Mahfood's website where he talked about Crosland with such contagious excitement that I caught the bug. And another part of me remembers stumbling across one of Crosland's "Slop" mini-comics while browsing the indie section of a comic shop in Austin, Texas. Whatever the introduction was, it split open the worlds of do-it-yourself and alternative comics for me to such a profound degree that I credit Crosland's work for helping me develop as an artist and a comics reader.

DIY comic?! What the fuck?! I can draw ANYTHING I want with ANY characters I want and then print it off at a Kinko's as a mini-comic and get my local comic shop to buy them and sell them for me?! MADNESS. But that's just what I ended up doing for the better part of about 6 years thanks to books like Crosland's. I remember lots of spectacular nights in my dorm sitting up late with my best friend Josh and drawing comics together and listening to music and talking about designs and ideas we otherwise never would have. Slop's energetic, signature style showed me and Josh that there was a market out there for just about every kind of comic and Slop's wide range of genres (poetic war parables, action-packed ninja tales, bizarre full-page pin-ups with an urban flair) and zany layouts taught us anything was possible when you were your own editor and publisher; and that creative freedom is the SOUL of indie comic-making.

My new addiction to Slop and other mini-comics kept me so consistently glued to the indie sections of all the local comic shops that I started growing an interest in and recognizing other artists I still adore today. It was my shopping for Crosland's work that helped put creators like Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware and James Kochalka on my radar. And it was THEIR work that put the works of guys like Seth and Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Paul Pope on my radar. And it was guys like that who put the literary alt comics scene on my radar and so on until NOW where I'm driving to shows like SPX and MoCCA and talking intelligently about comics with friends and sifting out PRECISELY what I like in a comic. It all grew out of simple 20-page Xerox'd mini-comics. And thanks to Crosland, I have many bookshelves bowing under the weight of MANY creatively explosive mini-comics from over the past decade whose contents get me just as excited about comic art and design as they did in 2001. Crosland's minis were popping with such fervor and life that they not only entertained me—they INSPIRED me to create. When was the last time a comic did that for you?

PS: I eventually met Crosland and his enthusiasm was no only-for-the-page show. I still have the business card he gave me tucked away in my wallet.

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