Thursday, December 24, 2009

Our Comics Decade: 2003

By the time 2003 rolled around, I had picked up a lot of the “landmark” comics I had either missed during my hiatus from the medium or that I had never read in the first place because in the early 90’s we didn’t have a great backlog of trade or we did but I didn’t know about them.

However, when I refer to “landmarks,” I’m really limiting my definition as I more or less mean the big super hero comics, and that’s about it.

For a long time, I felt a bit intimidated and even ashamed of my self-imposed ghettoization to the super hero corner of comics books. You have to understand that I was a fan weaned on stuff like X-Force and Superboy circa 1993—no disrespect to those comics, which I love to this day, but I recognize, as I believe the creators would, that they were more in the realm of fun, less in that of high art.

The indie section of my local comic store freaked me out. Fuck, the Vertigo section of my local comic shop freaked me out. The idea of reading something like Sandman or a mini comic just took me back to my Intro to Film class freshman year of college where everybody had these high-falootin’ theories on what the German midget flicks we were made to watch represented and I just thought they were funny because they featured little people.

No, better to stick to super heroes where nobody could make me feel stupid.

So I read Kingdom Come, I re-read Marvels, I tracked down The Golden Age and I picked up The Infinity Gauntlet.

Then I came to Watchmen. That was a big deal. Watchmen was right on the very edge of my “too smart” line, but everybody said it was the best comic ever, so I had to read it. I dug it. It was really really good (still is). But it did somewhat reinforce my fears that I was too dumb for truly intelligent comics as there were all sorts of essays and articles online breaking down every detail and allusion and much like that film class I still just thought it was cool.

I also read Squadron Supreme. And you know what? Of everything it was that book that made me start to think “Hey—I actually do get this stuff. Fuck the haters!”

Why? Because I realized a lot of the high brow, “cutting edge” stuff that people attributed to stuff like Watchmen, Marvels, etc., Mark Gruenwald did them first back in 1985 in the most super hero-ey super hero book of them all.

For those who don’t know, Squadron Supreme is about a group of Justice League knock-offs introduced in the Avengers back in the Silver Age. At first it was just Hyperion (Superman), Nighthawk (Batman), Doctor Spectrum (Green Lantern) and The Whizzer (The Flash), but every time an Avengers or Defenders writer brought them back, they added new members until every Leaguer up through Firestorm had been given a counterpart.

The Squadron had always been played mostly as an in-joke good for a chuckle every couple years or a plot device to prove Marvel’s characters could beat DC’s. However, Gruenwald, who had always been a big JLA fan despite also being a life-long Marvel Zombie, saw potential for more. He saw an opportunity to tell a very sophisticated story about what happens when a group of really powerful super heroes decides the world might be a better place if they were running the show.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s been done a zillion times since, often quite well, but again: Gruenwald did it first. Also, because the Squadron didn’t live on Marvel Earth, Gruenwald could wreak more havoc on the sights and citizens of their world.

Other stuff Gruenwald did in Squadron Supreme you may recognize? He had the heroes create a mind-control device that they used to alter villains for the “better” but which split the good guys over the ethics. He had the Squadron revealing their private identities to the public and suffer consequences as a result. He had a powerful hero accidentally kill an opponent and agonize over the burden of his incredible abilities. And he wrapped it all up with a “civil war” of sorts between two factions, heroes and villains on each side, over whether superhumans should rule the world or not.

He also had a super-scientist trying to cure cancer and facing a deal with the devil, one “hero” brainwash another into loving him, an evil clone incapacitating his counterpart then “accidentally” killing a senior citizen to win the affection of said old dude’s super heroine mate (basically it’s “What If Wonder Woman stayed with Steve Trevor even though he got super old and then Bizarro posing as Superman suffocated him in his sleep and she still kinda dug him even after?”), a mentally-challenged villain becoming one of the purest good guys of them all, and a lot more.

It was heavy stuff and I’m barely scratching the surface.

The thing is, Mark Gruenwald was a super hero guy just like me. I knew from reading interviews with him that he had that same sense of wonder for simple “guys and gals in tights” stories I did. He wasn’t really thinking about deconstruction of any sort when he wrote Squadron Supreme or anything else, but a lot of times it just kinda happened.

Basically, Mark Gruenwald had big idea and didn’t let the fact that he was “just” a super hero fan stop him. So why should I? Thus another step in my ever-evolving path towards appreciating all comics and wanting to be a part of the machine that made them was taken.

Sadly, Gru died in 1996 at a young 43 from a fatal heart attack. If there’s any guy I regret never getting to meet, work with, or at least talk to in this industry, it’s Mark Gruenwald.

I’d say thanks.

Just beginning my mature love affair with beer and having ZERO FUCKING IDEA what I wanted to do with my life, the summer of 2003 between sophomore and junior year of college was when I started at Wizard as an intern for the first time. I'd been a reader of the magazine since the mid-'90s, so I took a chance and applied along with a few intern programs at places such as Mad Magazine and IDW. Matter of fact, Ted Adams, President of IDW, GAVE me the non-paying IDW internship in San Diego, and I'd accepted and started planning what my dirt poor living situation would be out on the west coast when I got the call from Wizard saying the internship was mine if I wanted it. A family friend lived about an hour north of the Wizard offices near West Point, so I wouldn't have to live off eating cardboard and ice and BAM BAM: I took Wizard.

The internship was amazing, blah blah blah, I may save this story for another time. The important thing is that at the end of the summer, all Wizard interns were flown out to lend a hand at Wizard World Chicago, a show that, at the time, I believe was the 3rd largest in the country. The biggest convention I'd been to at that point was a 12-guy baseball card show at the Ramada Inn off Interstate 35 back home, so when I walked into WWChicago I basically shit myself and then went blind from all the sensory overload and then shit myself again on the hour for 3 days straight.

It was at THAT show that I first met one of my absolute comic book idols (Jim Mahfood) and began my first sketchbook (one of those random jobbies before I realized a theme book was the tippy toppy rad plan) and fainted at the sight of a quarter bin (I'd never seen one before!). But the most exciting thing for me was Artist's Alley. Just the collection of RANDOM-ass creators in one place - most of whom I'd never heard of - totally floored me. That show's crop of exhibitors was a ripe batch of future creative juggernauts, too! From WWChicago 2003, I still own a sketch of an angry anthropomorphic penis from Paul Mayberry (Aqua Leung), a minicomic called Lint that Patrick Gleason (Green Lantern Corps) used to do, and a copy of Meat Haus Volume 7 with contributors such as Nate Powell, Brandon Graham, Dash Shaw, Becky Cloonan and MANY others. RIPE.

But the big get for me came from a publisher I'd never heard of before that show - Young American Comics. Their table was manned by a young nerdy couple with glasses, and being a young nerdy dude, I attached myself to their display and discovered a minicomic called Snake Pit. It was a true-life, daily diary comic that collected 3 months each issue and was about a young rocker kid living in FUCKING Austin. I was from the Austin area! How did I not know about this book?! I grabbed all the issues they had immediately and devoured their 3-panels-a-day genius. The creator, "Ben Snake Pit," lived in a shitty house (the Snake Pit) before moving into a shed in someone's yard in issue #5. His adventures involved daily updates on how drunk/high he would get, what party he was going to, what movies he watched at home from his job at the impossibly eclectic "I HEART Video" video-store in Austin, and other equally inane things. But the FUN he invoked and the spirit of just LIVING and having a good time that welled up inside me when I read the issues was so powerful!

When I got back home, I noticed (and purchased books from) several local artists (including now-renowned poster artist Tim Doyle) who openly borrowed the 3-panels-a-day technique for their own minicomics. So you know what? I did it, too. And for over a full year, I did a book called Diary where I'd just open up and spill the joys and sorrows of being a dude. I eventually went on to submit to the Not My Small Diary series, I grew closer than I've ever grown to another guy with my buddy Josh by working on diary comics together, I did a Diary comic on the Wizard website for a while after I was hired on a few years later, and I generally immersed myself in the style of life Ben Snake Pit lived - a happy one.

Young American Comics has since VERY SADLY gone out of business, but Microcosm publishes yearly collections of Snake Pit now. You can also get collected editions of the early years here. I eventually met Ben at the first Staple convention in Austin. He just seemed like a regular guy who'd probably be a lot of fun to hang out with. He never accepted my MySpace friend request, but you know what? That's what regular guys do. God bless us.

2003 was unspectacular in the best possible way. I was living off campus for the first time in an apartment complex across the courtyard from my girlfriend Jami, enjoying domestic and comic bliss with little responsibility outside going to class, working 12 hours a week as a tutor and sometimes calling home. Jami made me a decoupage comic box covered on the outside with images she clipped out of an issue of Wizard that included a color shot of Fone Bone and some bad ass old Walt Simonson X-Factor art with Apocalypse on it. Each Wednesday I'd go to the comic shop with the roommate I'd found through the school paper, buy just whatever jumped off the shelf from Johnny Ryan comix to The Sandwalk Adventures to Gun Fu and then go back to Jami's apartment to cuddle up with her and zone out with comics for a few hours.

It was pretty college-y and pretty great.

Somewhere around this time, I really got into Teenagers From Mars from Rick Spears and Rob G, and I'm not sure I can explain why. I mean, it was (probably) the last truly independent, self-published "floppy sized" comic series I followed before that model finally collapsed in favor of OGNs or handmade mini comics. But I wasn't even cognizant of that at the time. More so, I was drawn along by an extremely fun comic that moves with a lot of blatant "Kiss My Fucking Ass" energy.

For anyone who hasn't read the book, Teenagers tells the story of Macon – a comic loving punk rocker who teams up with the girl of his dreams and a coalition of grave-robbing kids looking for Civil War memorabilia to flip to collectors in order to get rare back issues. It wears its influences – from omnipresent middle America comic shop culture references to adolescent zombie art to the Misfits song title – right out on its sleeve. And really, I should've hated that. I've never been a fan of comics that spend too much time up the ass of comics culture or history (example: the whole "dot matrix printing for kitschy flashback effect almost never works for me), and even though I've been a longtime superhero guy, anything that chucks subtly for confessional "this character will say exactly what they mean" dramatics strikes me as frustratingly stupid ("Star Trek" excepted).

Still, following the slow release of this little series that could as new issues landed at 21st Century every few months had me captivated. Maybe it's that from the first issue's opening sequence where Macon throws himself not just into telling his boss to fuck off but slugging the bastard in the face on through, the series knowingly slid into the rarest kind of teenage wish-fulfillment. The characters in Teenagers From Mars act with damn near total certainty in their passion for comics, their belief in young love and their increasingly unrealistic acts of public disruption and vandalism. Though it's meant to be set in a kind of Anytown, U.S.A. setting right down to the power-tripping sheriff's department and the tubby comic shop clerk who grasps on to the Pulitzer win of Maus as a justification for his own life choices, the book could never, ever fucking happen in the real world. It's an outright fantasy whose central thesis is "What if David and Darlene from 'Roseanne' decide to fuck shit up with shotguns," and I dove into the illusion feet first.

Looking back, I'm not sure how the series holds up today, and I just re-read the damn thing. It's certainly more entertaining and engaging that the dozens of other churned out "new mainstream" series meant to drive interest to comics with straightforward stories built around more casual readers (i.e. punk rockers and people passingly familiar with genre entertainment). At the same time, it doesn't carry the innovations or the punch of something like Street Angel, which have carried on over the years and led their creators to wider acclaim. Spears and G have certainly continued to produce comics, but outside the few projects I remember from MoCCA 2006 or so on their Gigantic Graphic Novels label, a Batman backup about Joker's hyenas and that Pirates Of Coney Island book that'll probably never finish, they've definitely receded.

But in that moment, there was nothing more I wanted to do aside from lie on a couch with my feet in my girlfriend's lap and letting a stark page of inky violence entertain me for a minute while I waited for life to get more complicated. Teenagers From Mars ends with a tease of a Bonnie & Clyde-esque sequel, and even then I wasn't sure if the creators were being serious about future installments or just winking at the reader as if to say, "Yeah, we know. It's supposed to be this ridiculous." Still, if it came out tomorrow, I'd buy issue #1, roll back the cover and enjoy the distraction for as long as I could.


TJ Dietsch said...

I think I read through all of Snake Pit up to a point from Rickey's collection and it's awesome. Highly recommended for everyone! Merry Christmas!

Rickey said...

See?! ANOTHER reason it's great - it was a mini I could share with TJ!

HardtravelingHero said...

I really like the Ben's section about Squadron Supreme, because this is how I felt for years and years as an "adult" comic book reader (and one who worked in a comic books store for most of his 18th-24th birthdays) who often tried to get others to read comics, but also wanted to feel sophisticated himself, but just couldn't really do it for a number of years. Alan Moore's tomes were and sometimes still are intimidating, but seem much more approachable upon second reading, much like Shakespeare must seem to a 9th grader during the first go around, but it's hard or scary once one reaches the college level and grad courses.

Can't say anything for Snake Pit except that I'd like to try it.

I read Teenagers from Mars half a year ago and liked it enough at first, but didn't like when it went fantastical. Maybe its audience is supposed to be younger than me. I can get into the teen angsty stuff still, and the sexual tension of young lust and newness, but not the change in tone, kind of like my thoughts and feelings on Shaun of the Dead when it moves between parody and seriousness more heavily than what often happens when comedies have their serious moment before the climax.

I do miss collegey life some. It's not all shits and giggles standing at the front of the room. Sigh... Lack of real responsibility...