Monday, December 21, 2009

Our Comics Decade: 2002

If a magic fire demon swept through my apartment and destroyed everything I owned but only one item survived the shitty enchanted luck I just had, I'd want it to be my copy of Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy.

(Or my girlfriend or my cat.)

Strolling through the indie section of a comic shop near the University of Texas campus in 2002, Clumsy's plain tan cover with slender text caught my eye, and that sleek-ass price tag of 10 bucks meant my broke college student ass could afford to give it a try. In order to buy comics (and beer) in 2002, I gave plasma twice a week and still have the track marks for that high volume of generosity I gushed. Meanwhile, there's never really been a time in my life where I gave up reading comics or felt like I outgrew them or traded them for girls or anything like that - I bought them pretty consistently since I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. But starting in 2002, I was getting pretty bored with the high-adventure, fantastical elements of superhero comics. So, armed with $20-$40 bucks each Wednesday, I was ready to try new shit at the comic shop and slice-of-life books were the freedom my Thelma and Louise comic passion was looking to drive off a cliff for.

Clumsy is BASICALLY an auto-biographical story about a long-distance relationship and the semi-neurotic dude (Jeffrey Brown) who deals with it all. But you've got to understand, I never read anything like this before! By the second page, Jeffrey's naked and making out with his girlfriend! But not all smooth-looking like Cyclops in a pair of trunks by the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters poolside as drawn by Jim Lee. No, no, Jeffrey draws himself slightly chubby, covered in hair and, most often, in a bedroom or living room cluttered with shit. It was like reading a diary! I know now that the auto-bio landscape has hundreds of similar practitioners and that ground-breakers like Robert Crumb helped pave the way for artistic self-expression in comics by exposing their subconscious by allowing all the grit in their lives to show up in their work and all, but Jeffrey Brown's everyman was more like me and has remained more like me than any other auto-bio protagonist I've found since. I'm a confused dude. I had a girlfriend living in another town. I like sex. I'm a goofball and introspective and worried and joyous. Fuck Darkhawk (not really), I had a new buddy.

That's all not to mention the simplicity of Jeffrey's art. Stark straight lines and ZERO shading mean the story is RIGHT THERE on the page, but that means the emotion has to spurt out from the most surprising places - silent panels, claustrophobic close-ups, natural pacing and more. Seeing Jeffrey employ all this to such effect with such SIMPLE-looking techniques made me A) think I could this myself (I CAN'T) and B) notice how LITTLE those kinds of techniques were being used in the mainstream comics I'd been reading.

Maybe it's nostalgia for Jeffrey and maybe it's a straight-up addiction to his comics, but he's probably the only creator whose work I've bought ALL OF since I first discovered him. Whether it's a book about hilarious robots, a book of one-page gags, a book about cats getting out of bags, a book about a superhero with a big head or a Simpsons homage, I grab anything new by him that I can get my hands on because that honesty and deceiving simplicity I found in Clumsy is still in everything that talented bastard does. COMICS ARE RAD!

Over the summer of 2002, I was an editorial intern at DC Comics. The story of how I got the job is far too long and complicated to repeat here (especially considering how boring it would be for y'all to read), but suffice to say, once I landed the gig I was pretty fucking pumped up about it. In terms of ever having any brand of fanboy loyalty, I'd always been more of a "DC kid" dating back to my earliest interactions with comics from around age 6 or 7, and seeing the internship effectively saved me from another summer spent painting houses for extra money, I was already heaping a heavy amount of praise and expectations on the gig before even flying to New York for ten weeks of imposing on my aunt and uncle on Long Island and doing a three-day-a-week commute to 1700 Broadway.

Before I left, I remember my mother (who despite being outwardly supportive always viewed this whole comics thing as a potentially ruinous career path) trying to help keep my sites realistic. "You know, Kiel," she said. "You might go to New York for the summer and realize that this whole comic book thing isn't really cut out for you."

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah. Not so much.

In a lot of ways, my internship was every bit as run-of-the-mill and tedious-sounding as these things are generally viewed – a lot of photocopying. A lot of filing. A lot of labeling envelopes. One editor who shall remain nameless was always asking me to clean his desk when he was out at lunch. But when you're photocopying original Wally Wood JSA stories for reference or sending out black and whites of new books to their creative teams, that kind of work comes off as way more fun than it should be. And beyond that stuff, there were a slew of honest to God fanboy freakout moments for me. From meeting all sorts of creators passing through (Klaus Janson is the fucking BOSS!) to pulling in Billy "The Rocketeer" Campbell off the street for an impromptu tour.

Most of all though, an internship at a comic company means learning a lot about "how the sausage is made" for superhero books. At any given time, there are a million people on the internet shitting on editors at the Big Two for committing some kind of invisible crime against good taste or the one true Green Lantern or some horse shit, but what I took away more than anything else was how the best editors have a very strong but generally unobtrusive hand in the books they put together. Reorganizing the Bat Office reference bible while Matt Idelson and Nachie Castro tracked down artists who could compliment the tone Darwyn Cooke set for Ed Brubaker's Catwoman run and sitting in Steve Wacker's office ballooning issues of Justice League Adventures while he gabbed on the phone with talent trying to find the best ways to up the fun factor of the books he worked on – these are the kinds of things I remember the most about that summer. The little things where comics veered off that supposed assembly line format of "Writer/Penciler/Inker/Colorist/Letterer" and into really unique and original story collaborations.

And probably the book where I got to interact the most with that often unseen process was Green Arrow: Secret Files & Origins #1. See, my direct internship supervisor was Ivan Cohen. Ivan probably isn't as well known to most comic fans as some of the other editors in the biz (he's since moved on to working in DC's Hollywood unit), but at the time he was the right hand man for then Executive Editor Mike Carlin. Ivan is without a doubt one of the smartest, savviest and hardest working guys in comics (and I'm not just saying that because I essentially owe my entire professional career to him).

Beyond helping oversee a lot of little tasks in terms of the running of all of DC's line, Ivan put together DC's then regular series of Secret Files one-shots along with whatever editor oversaw the particular hero in the spotlight that month. While I'm sure a lot of people see these books as fan service throwaways, a lot of those books had some stellar stories in them. The JLA and JSA editions both come to mind, as does the Catwoman edition with a two-pager Brubaker wrote to "explain" the appearance of Holly in the series where Eric Shanower did the best fucking Jaime Hernandez homage that's ever been committed to a page.

Now, for the Green Arrow comic, editorial was going in with absolutely no involvement from the ongoing series regular writer, Kevin Smith, as he was busy making a movie or something at the time. So the task fell to Ivan and Bob Schreck to make the book feel substantial and worthwhile for readers without the marquee writer who re-launched the series into prominence. It wasn't the easiest thing to do, but over the course of the ten weeks, I got to see the process of building a cool comic from nothing, soup to nuts.

The piece of the issue I personally had the biggest impact on (which is to say, barely any impact at all) was the creation of a diagnostic of Ollie's famed trick arrows. Ivan had me go through a bunch of older GA comics from some Jack Kirby stuff that had been recently reprinted to that killer Grant Morrison two-part with Connor Hawke in the Watchtower from JLA. I'll pat myself on the back a little for suggesting that we include the bleach bottle arrow from the beginning of Smith, Phil Hester and Ande Park's run. The final spread is posted at the bottom of this entry. The issue still holds a privileged place in my collection because of this silly little thing.

More interestingly, I got to see the real impact an artist can have on a superhero comic thanks to the work Ivan did with Rick Burchett on the final story in the issue. The story written by Scott McCullar dealt with the death of Ollie Queen's parents as he related their demise to his extended superhero family before offering them a hearty bowl of chili. In general, it was a decent little story by the standards of 8-page backup features, but Burchett tackled the script like a pro, pulling a lot more dramatic tension and characterization than you'd expect through his own well-honed storytelling instincts. Most of this stuff would probably be imperceptible to readers who hadn't read the whole script, but seeing how well Ivan and Rick meshed the ideas together to elevate the story into something worth the $3.99 price tag taught me a lot more about how comics are really made than the hundreds of cornball articles I'd read over the years in the fan press.

[SIDE NOTE: If you ever see a copy of Wonder Woman #200 as edited by Ivan and written by Greg Rucka on sale somewhere, pick that book up! Burchett does a killer HG Peter in a really smart little story that's not reprinted in trade!]

After that summer and that issue, I was able to go back to the rest of my college career dedicated to getting back to comics after I graduated (sorry, mom). And although I'm still pretty disappointed in myself that I never made it to working in the industry in an editorial capacity, I'm still grateful for the brief chance I had to contribute a little bit back to the medium that'd been omnipresent in my life for so long.

During the fall of 2002, I took advantage of Connecticut College’s study abroad program and hopped the pond over to Norwich, England, where I spent four months living and studying at the University of East Anglia.

All in all, the experience was one I got some value out of, but also not everything I had hoped for. From an educational standpoint, I was still pretty focused on journalism as my field of endeavor at that point, and anybody who has been exposed to European newspapers or magazines know that their standards and practices when it comes to reporting the news is nothing like those employed in the U.S., so I didn’t learn much that would be applicable to my professional life unless I chose to relocate to the United Kingdom.

On the other hand, culturally I got a lot out of the trip. Just living amongst people from another part of the world is really eye-opening, and only a year out from 9/11, being an American dropped in the midst of a nation who didn’t particularly care for people of my nationality was a bit awkward, but more often than not led to some pretty intense and valuable discourse for me (and to hammer home they "I'm American" point and tempt vandals, I posted the cover at the end of this paragraph on the door to my room). I also got to travel to places like Scotland, Spain, Amsterdam and Italy fairly cheaply, an opportunity that obviously is not readily available when you’re not living within a couple hours of those places; saw some great sights and also made some great memories that I can barely remember (this is well before I stopped drinking).

However, the major shadow cast on the semester as a whole (besides the pretty much round-the-clock grey skies and lack of sunlight that came pretty close to driving me batshit crazy) was that my girlfriend of three years and I, who were pretty much on the outs from the beginning of the year but were clinging to our relationship for whatever reason people do such things, decided that attending the same school abroad and living together would be the perfect remedy to our woes—big mistake. We spent the first two months at each other’s throats, broke up, and then I wandered around in a fugue state between depression and confusion for the rest of the time. We had made a lot of the same friends during our time in England, so all of a sudden they were forced to pick sides, only ratcheting up the awkwardness that much more. I’ll definitely always regret that I spent probably more time trying to patch up my fractured relationship and then mourning its loss than actually exploring the foreign land I was living in, but c’iest la vie.

On the bright side, I somehow made my school’s basketball team; I couldn’t shoot or even dribble, but basically if you were American, they thought you were Michael Jordan. I led the team in steals for the two games I played before quitting to devote more time to “studies” (drinking) because I had no problem walking up to guys on the opposing squad and just grabbing the ball from those pasty, tea-drinking blokes. If nothing else I can always say I played college basketball.

The other big plus I took away from my time at East Anglia was the town of Norwich itself. It was a really gorgeous little oasis located about an hour and a half northeast of London, surrounded by farms and whatnot but with a really cool hub of stores and attractions at its center. My friend Adam and I spent countless nights at the Canary Cue Club, a classic smoke-filled billiards establishment located within the winding halls of a sketchy factory that looked like every stereotypical seedy British club you’ve ever seen in the movies and served some of the greatest cheeseburgers I’ve ever eaten. There was also a legitimate old school castle you could tour and a great open air tent market with all sorts of bizarre knick knacks for sale, including some comics (I picked up both bookends of Eclipso: The Darkness Within there) and a red jumpsuit I ended up converting into a Super Mario costume for Halloween.

There was also a wonderful little comic shop, which gave me no shortage of relief upon my arrival in town after being scared I might miss months of my favorites titles and became the center of a weekly pilgrimage I’d make via bus into Norwich every Thursday (England’s free comic day). The trip was as much to get away from the aforementioned girlfriend and give myself at least a few blissful hours of me-time each week as anything else.

My ritual started with me heading straight to the shop, which wasn’t much different from any you’d find in the U.S. other than a uniquely British excitement the owners and patrons had for the then-upcoming Alan Davis Killraven limited series. I’d generally just snatch whatever new books I wanted for the week, but that place also helped me out a lot with filling the holes in the full run of New Teen Titans into New Titans that I was assembling (for some reason they had had a lot of the post-Zero Hour New Titans issues I couldn’t find in the U.S., so I guess England really appreciated that era).

Occasionally after I’d step outside and transfer the bagged and boarded books I’d accumulated from the store’s plastic bag into my backpack and dispose of the excess (I’ve never been a bags and boards guy, but they didn’t really give you an option there), I’d stop by the novelty store a few doors down where they had some cool toys and games and where I actually also snagged the Avengers: Nights of Wundagore pocket-size book.

My comics purchases squared away, I made a beeline to this hole-in-the-wall Thai place I had discovered one day where the super-nice British owner and his wife actually came to expect me each Thursday evening (I was the only person ever in there at that time) and had my Pad Thai and tea waiting for me so I could settle right in, share a few nice words with them, and then enjoy the books I had just bought over noodles I could not believe an Englishman had cooked.

Maybe the highlight of my weekly Norwich trip though was my last stop at the local public library. Located just above the tent market, this place was a gorgeous and modern architectural marvel of glass and steel that puts to shame any library I have seen before or since. They had an incredible selection of any book or research material you needed, as well as an awesome pizza place on the second floor that overlooked the entire town.

But most importantly, they had a huge comic book graphic novel section off in the far corner that blew my mind.

I had never seen comics in the library before outside of a few books on the craft of making them back in Newton, so this was a revelation for me. And the fact that the section was pretty well separated from the rest of the high traffic areas of the place made it nice and easy for me to settle in, grab a trade or two, and mow through them without ever leaving the building.

The Norwich library had a pretty eclectic selection of trades that I can’t fully recall, though there was of course a lot of manga and foreign stuff that at the time I had no interest in. I do remember there was a lot of DC and virtually no Marvel, which didn’t really bother me as I was heavy into my DC period. I got my hands on the Grant Morrison JLA issues I hadn’t read via their collection and also checked out stuff I never would have otherwise like Superman/Gen13 or Batman: Fortunate Son.

They also had a near full run of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but I wasn’t ready yet (more on this in a future post).

The primary poison of the Norwich library came down to two primary flavors though: Superman and/or Elseworlds. I most vividly remember reading a lot of late 80’s and 90’s Superman stuff like They Saved Luthor’s Brain and the Revenge Squad stories that, again, I would never have tracked down on my own, so it definitely filled in some major gaps for me. I pretty distinctly recall Son of Superman and how awesome I thought the costume designs were, as well as really enjoying John Byrne’s Superman/Batman: Generations and being super-psyched when the sequel turned up (they would rearrange the trades weekly, rotating stuff in and out, so there was no guarantee if you didn’t get to something one visit it would still be there the next).

When I returned to the States near the end of 2002, I was down one girlfriend but up a lot more knowledge of comics than when I had left (the perfect comic geek’s tradeoff). The combination of more free time/improved comics IQ would lead me to lobby for a comic book section on, the entertainment web site I was writing pro wrestling columns for, and a ways down the road, that would usher me into the comics industry for real.


Senator Drake Lickington said...

Rickey! Write more! Your stuff is always a great read.

Rickey said...