Monday, December 28, 2009

Our Comics Decade: 2004

I have a buddy named Kegmeister, who I've written about here before. Once upon a time, Kegs and I were talking about our career choices in life. At the time, he was tending bar but looking in to getting back to school after his B.A. in Chemistry had failed to net him anything relatively close to interesting and challenging work. When I asked him what kind of job he thought he might want, Kegs said, "I don't know, man. I mean...I always kind of felt that after high school you went to college and after college you got a job. You know? Like, there would just be a job there for me."

I'm sure a few people will giggle at that, but damn if I didn't feel the same way to some extent when I got out of school. Originally, Jami and I had planned on moving to Chicago, but when that fell through I was left without much of a plan beyond e-mail applying for publishing jobs in New York to zero response. I ended up spending most of 2004 as a part time substitute teacher and full time darts champion at Mike's Tavern on Fenton Rd. I was living at my mom's house, juggling the threat of literal kindergartner vomit and teenager verbal diarrhea on a daily basis, missing Jami and generally settling into the "lonely failure of a 20-something" cliché nicely. It sucked.

And around that time, I read Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth for the first time. For some reason that escapes me now, I spent more time hanging out at the local library during that year than I had since I was maybe seven, and amongst the local branch's collection of old Peanuts collections and coffee table books about superheroes, Chris Ware's intricate tome was nestled away, never checked out once by a person who wasn't me.

I'd been a little...God, I guess the word is "afraid" of tackling Jimmy Corrigan up to that point. Although I'd read and enjoyed the Ware-edited issue of McSweeney's from earlier that year as well as a taste of Quimby the Mouse at that point, but I'd never approached the cartoonist's masterpiece both because I'd heard so many people speak about it with a kind of reverence even then (I've had a lot of bad experiences hating things people have raved about to me) and because from my little experience with his work, I wasn't sure Ware would be offering me much beyond a lot of formalism wrapped around clever ideas. Interesting to read, I told myself, but probably not for me.

So yeah...basically I was a fucking idiot. For those who haven't read Jimmy Corrigan yet, the book is more than an emotional gut punch. It's more like an emotional water boarding. Ware is definitely very formal and design-oriented in his approach to cartooning, but the book proves with every page that those aesthetic choices don't hamper it's genuinely human story – more often than not they drive it home in ways that standard drama drawn in standard panels can't begin to convey. Beyond that, there's not much critically I think I can offer about the book. Better writers on comics have tackled this to death if you're interested in that stuff, but really you should just read the damn book before anything else.

Although the one takeaway I do think people don't discuss as often when it comes to books like Ware's is how it came out strong at the decade's beginning and made such a compelling case for the "mammoth chunk of book" presentation for comics. Outside the necessity some artists have for telling one story in three, four or even eight hundred pages of comics, massive books of the artform work so well for a reader...maybe even better than traditional books. Comics are a great thing to be poured over. Most of us have a story about our childhood love of the medium and how we'd read our smattering of drug store-bought titles over and over to the point of disintegration. When you read comics, you can stop to re-check previous scenes or ponder a panel or line of dialogue or just sit and fucking stare at a page for hours on end. Your journey through a text is entirely up to you.

I'm sure I'm not bringing any new points to the table in saying all of this, but since Jimmy Corrigan, more and more truly novel-length comics have hit, and those pleasures built in to the medium's face value only grow when offered a single, gigantic unit through which to experience its building blocks. That same year I read the book, I also worked my way through countless Pogo collections at that library and Blankets in the local high school's library over a week of lunch hours. And all the while, there were a ton of new book-length comics cropping up for people to dig into.

So if you're primary source of comics comes in the regular habit of devouring chunks of story one 22-page pamphlet at a time, do yourself a favor and find a giant comic to work your way through at whatever pace and in whatever spot you like. Reading a book like Jimmy Corrigan may be a little intimidating at first, but if you put your time in to absorb the truly fucking soul-crushing impact of the story, the experience might just pay off by kicking your mopey 20-something ass into finding a career.

2004 was the year it all came together for me in a roundabout and unexpected way—in other words, it was the year of my secret origin in the comics business (and as such I apologize that this entry even moreso than most in this series will be very me-centric, though I do make a lame and ham-fisted attempt to tie a comic to it at the end).

At the end of 2003, my humble little web site—or section of a web site—411mania gave out “Best Of” awards, including one proclaiming my own personal favorite writer Geoff Johns as the number one scribe of the year. I was both shocked and delighted a few days after the announcement that Geoff Johns himself took the time to track down my e-mail address from the article and drop me a line to say thanks and that he dug the site.

As winter wore on and the countdown to my graduation from college kept ticking, I was getting a bit concerned about my future prospects. I had entered Conneciticut College nearly four years earlier angling for a career in journalism, and while I had enjoyed working on the student newspaper, an internship at a local paper the previous summer had been torturous and my enthusiasm for that avenue had waned. Likewise I had zero interest in parlaying my English-Writing degree into any sort of teaching career. Really the only thing I had a tremendous amount of passion for anymore writing-wise was my web site and spreading the gospel of comics; but I couldn’t make a living off of that.

Could I?

That’s the question my dad posed to me over lunch during my spring break. He saw how much work I put into the site as well as how much I got out of it and articulated the thoughts I’d been having about trying to take that to the next level. He also suggested I contact Geoff and ask him what kind of prospects there were for somebody with my skillset within the comics world.

I e-mailed Geoff my situation and awaited his response with intense anticipation in between rounds of Madden 2005 and Melrose Place with my buddy Jordan.

My mom actually was the one who contacted me shortly thereafter asking if I had a “friend named Jeff” as he had called and left a message at my folks’ house in Newton. Since I’d been on break when I first sent the e-mail, I had given Geoff that number rather than my school phone. I e-mailed him again, and got a voicemail from a surfer-sounding dude (apologies if you end up reading this Geoff, but that was my first impression) that I immediately geeked out over and saved on my phone until the day I left school.

(The day I got the voicemail was also the day I first spoke to Megan again after we’d been out of touch for a bit; we started dating again soon after this and today we’re married—I don’t think any of that is a coincidence)

I had to summon up a bit of coverage to call Geoff back (as I told my Mom, “Imagine one of the Beatles called you up”), but I did and he was instantly enthused to be speaking with a fan who had ambitions to get in the industry as he had been in my shoes not long before that and got where he was thanks to the advice and guidance of guys like James Robinson and David Goyer. We spoke several times over the next several weeks and he steered me in the direction of Wizard Magazine, where he had some friends and thought I could be a good fit.

I got my resume (which at that point was a bunch of newspaper clippings and printouts of web articles about why Young Justice was awesome) together, did my best to make it look professional, then shot it over to Geoff’s buddy Matt Seinrich at Wizard. Time marched on, I collected my diploma (actually I didn’t get to collect my physical diploma because of one extremely frustrating French professor and ended up needing to attend a summer course at Boston College though I did get to walk with my class, but that’s a story for another day), and waited.

And continued to wait.

Matt did actually get my resume, but unfortunately around the same time he also departed Wizard for a little endeavor called Robot Chicken. I got lost in the shuffle as they rearranged responsibilities.

Undaunted, my friend Tim and I packed our stuff along with a few dozen 411 business cards he made while he was working at Kinko’s and flew across the country to the San Diego Comic Con. We were there to have fun and enjoy the incredible atmosphere, but we—principally me—were also there both to report for the site, and, perhaps more importantly, to network. They probably don’t remember it now, but at that show Joe Quesada, Dan DiDio, Brian Bendis, Peter David, Judd Winick and several other folks I’ve since had extensive relationships with professionally got handed a business card from an overly eager kid named Ben Morse.

I also made sure to spend a lot of time hanging around the Wizard booth making a nuisance of myself to Mike Cotton and Andy Serwin (as Andy would tell me many times later, they “just couldn’t get rid of me”), letting them know I had a resume in somewhere in their offices. Most rewardingly for me, I got to meet Geoff face-to-face and he even took me and Tim out for drinks. Even after we had spoken on the phone quite a few times, I was still pretty intimidated by Geoff (honestly I am to this day even though he’s become somebody I consider a good friend; not because he commands intimidation in any way, but because he’s very much my “big brother” in this business, and I never want to let him down, plus he’s one of the most unflappable dudes I’ve ever met), but we had some really good chats, and as the show drew to a close, I was more confident than ever that my destiny was to work in comics (also, he let me know collecting and reading the original Suicide Squad was a necessity, not an option, and nearly inadvertently got me in trouble on the plane ride home as I was sitting next to a kid travelling alone and accidentally let him read Geoff’s Flash issue about Mirror Master where he reveals he has a cocaine habit; I also met Paul Ryan on that flight and got to talk about the Invisible Woman’s bathing suit costume from the 90’s with him, and he was a really nice guy).

A lot of that enthusiasm faded following SDCC. Wizard didn’t get back to me and I had one interview at DC for an entry-level job it would be overly charitable to call disastrous (I did get to really see New York City for the first time and the DC offices are wicked cool, so it wasn’t a total loss). Through the uncertainty, Megan, my friends and my family remained encouraging—as did Geoff above and beyond any expectation I had—even as I felt myself inching closer to wrting copy for an ad agency.

Then, one day as I was working a part-time gig for my dad re-doing his company’s web site, I got an e-mail from Joe Yanarella to come in an interview for the position of research assistant. I was over the moon, as was everybody I told, including Geoff.

I made the trek up to Congers, New York where Wizard put me up for the night at a nearby motel. The office was nestled kinda in the middle of nowhere, so I did a trial run at like 11 the night before my interview. It’s dumb and cliched, I know, but when I found that building with the big ol’ Wizard logo on the glass outside, I felt like I was where I was meant to be.

With over five years in the rearview, I think I can safely say I nailed the interview. Cotton and Andy had put in good words for me despite my clinginess and Mel Caylo, another pal of Geoff’s (and today of mine as well) was actually the one who fished my resume out of wherever it had been. Geoff had also been in the ear of the man in charge, Pat McCallum, who along with Brian Cunningham and Dan Reilly ended up being one of my major mentors at Wizard.

A couple weeks of relentless bugging Joe over e-mail later and I was headed back down to Congers, this time for good, car packed and all. I couldn’t thank all the folks who had supported me in this crazy endeavor to turn a hobby into a job, from my dad to Megan to Geoff and so on, enough, and I still can’t.

I checked into the sorta motel/sorta apartment complex where Joe had recommended I crash until finding my own place, and after discovering two paper cups filled with used cigarettes left behind by the previous occupant, made my way over to Wizard. I was a day early, so my new boss, Dan, put me in the extensive research library catalouging comics. I had obviously never seen so many comic books and trades in the same place before, so I was overwhelmed and overjoyed. I alternated putting stuff away with flipping through both old books I recognized and all the stuff I’d never been able to find. At the end of the day, Dan told me I could borrow whatever I wanted.

So here’s the comic part.

The first thing I ended up checking out from the Wizard library was the five-volume Onslaught trade paperback collection. Onslaught had been the event during which I left comics, so I figured there was no more appropriate way to mark this momentous chapter in my life/career than picking up where I left off. As I curled up in one of the two beds in my temporary abode (they didn’t have any single bed units available for rental) after getting off the phone with my girlfriend, I cracked open the gold foil-embossed cover and checked out the entire Marvel Universe attempting to thwart Professor X and Magneto evil twin/symbiote/thing.

I thought about how comics had come a long way—and so had I, baby, so had I.

Invincible #10 kicked my ass through my face.

If you have even a passing interest in superhero comics - if you can even spell the word "superhero" - there is ZERO fucking reason you should be skipping Invincible. In 2004, I went on to a second Wizard internship where I met some of my best friends for the first time, and by the end of '04, I was offered a full-time job at Wizard that I declined to take for personal reasons (I eventually joined Wizard full-time in 2005 a few months later before I'd even graduated). But during my 2003 Wizard internship, one of my duties was to help out with the Book of the Month and Secret Stash selection processes, which meant I was exposed to a LOT of books I otherwise wouldn't have been.

One of those was Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker's Invincible series from Image. Somebody at Image had sent over the first four issues in a single batch, and I thought they were pretty rad. Walker's art got me most interested because his layouts and designs had this crisp, angular peculiarity to it that seemed so fresh. Otherwise, the story was (and I think I described it this way to then-Wizard Editor in Chief Pat McCallum, who'd handed me the books) a basic "What if Superboy grew up with Superman as a dad and had to deal with teen angst plus superpowers?" kind of deal.

I liked the book enough that when I went back to school in the fall of '03, I picked up Kirkman's first issue of Walking Dead and, again, was more blown away by the art (Tony Moore's) than the story, which I thought was a rip-off of "28 Days Later" (though I've since found out that Kirkman wrote the first issue before "28 Days Later" was released). I let a school buddy borrow the Invincible issues I had, he grew addicted to the series and started buying it monthly, I stopped buying both Invincible and Walking Dead, and eventually just read his Invincible issues. By the time the spring semester rolled around in early '04, I went ahead and started buying Invinicble again with issue #9, because starting with issue #7, I couldn't BELIEVE how awesome each issue's cliffhangers were becoming.

I don't want to spoil it for anybody who hasn't read it, but a major MAJOR character was revealed to be a major MAJOR bad guy in issue #7, and like any regular superhero series, I just assumed the whole thing would be chalked up to a clone or a demonic possession or an evil twin. But in issue #10, it was FIRMLY concluded that this character had, indeed, all along, been a bad motherfucking murderer. And then the REAL insanity started in the series as Invincible set out to stop this bad guy - and failed so miserably at it that he almost fucking died. We're talking game-changer, Superman vs. Doomsday shit in issue # FUCKING 10 of what was top be an ongoing series!!! What could happen next!?

That exciting "anything could happen" mentality and the "each mind-blowing alteration is permanent" promise combined to make Invincible the most unpredictably entertaining superhero book I think I've ever read. It helped me recognize that I'd been missing that magical medley of elements from most of the books I'd read in the past - and I needed more of it in the superhero books I chose to put in my longboxes in the future. But more importantly, I realized that being more discerning in my tastes moving forward was as essential as physically buying a book.

2004 was a brutal fucking year.


demoncat said...

awesome stories proving that comics are powerfull. and amazing one phone call open doors for you ben even led to re hooking with your wife. though can not imagine the clinining part. though onslaught as your first gig was something better not at wizard. and sorry your 2004 was brutal for you Ricky

TasteTheRainbow said...

well said, demoncat.