Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Our Comics Decade: 2005

I don't think I stopped smiling ONCE in 2005.

I graduated college that May because I double-majored, so I needed a few extra courses than the ordinary 4-year education. I moved to New York before the ceremony, though, after taking a second job offer from Wizard and stayed for the summer on a futon in the house of some of the best friends I've ever had. "The Summer of Fun 2005" yielded dozens of BBQs, Halo tournaments, genre TV watching marathons, binge drinking adventures, and so much more that looking back, I feel like I was living in an Apatow comedy about working at a comic book magazine. I had a job in comics, I was on a career path for the first time ever, I had amazing friends, and I was enjoying my life so wholly that I hope hope HOPE that all of humanity has felt - even for a few seconds in their lives - a FRACTION of what it was like that orgasmically fervent year for me. You know that part in high school movies where it's Fourth of July and fireworks are exploding and someone looks over at someone else while, like, Duncan Sheik or whatever plays in the background and says, "This is the best it's gonna be for us"? That was 2005 for me.

And the comics! HOOO BOY, the COMICS! At work, I was devouring EVERYTHING. The fabled Wizard library, with its dense paper-pulpy aroma practically dying my hair four colors, was filled with everything you could want and that's where I tried out everything from Miracleman to Clive Barker's Night of the Living dead comics to early Top Shelf anthologies to Preacher. Shit was tight! And the new comics that year - JESUS! DC played me like a Namco handheld game by dropping dozens and dozens of books in my lap that I just could not stop hoovering up. In 2005 alone, the world was served Green Lantern: Rebirth, Geoff Johns on Teen Titans and Flash and JSA, the Bizarro World hardcover, Will Pfeifer’s criminally underrated HERO, Grant Morrison's PHENOMENAL Seven Soldiers epic, John Arcudi and Patrick Gleason on Aquaman, the juicy launches of JLA Classified (Morrison and Ed McGuinness!) and JSA Classified (Johns and Amanda Conner!), the Kinetic trade paperback (the only full book I actually buy copies of to give as gifts whenever I can), Scott Beatty's fun-to-champion Son of Vulcan, Eaglesham's Villains United, the start of fucking Infinite Crisis, ever-lovin' SOLO, and sooo soo much more!

So, there's the thing - I can't choose just one book. So I'm picking DC Comics as a whole as the book that meant the most to me in 2005. I think it was because I was the most happy I've ever been in my life that year that I allowed myself to be so positively receptive to an outstandingly creative year from DC and ended up falling back in love with comics and what they meant to me. I was already smiling - but DC kept me right on grinning and fueled up a nostalgia I don't think I'll ever run empty on.

When I went back to my mom's place this past week for the holiday break, I looked EVERYWHERE for the comic I wanted to write about for this year. You know what? Bupkis. Now, this probably has a lot to do with the fact that I own way too many fucking comic books, but it may also have to do with the fact that Robert Ullman's "Old Timey Hockey Tales" is a very small comic book – some would say a "mini comic."

During the spring of 2005, I made what was either the very stupid or very smart move of packing my 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier with a bunch of crap and driving to Long Island to stay indefinitely with my aunt and uncle in hopes of landing a job in publishing. What that ultimately meant was several months of applying to any and every job open at any book publisher in Manhattan (and some pretty suspect teaching gigs) while spending my nights eating cheap pizza and watching a shit load of "West Wing" reruns. However, during those dark days I had a few bright spots which included my first forays into what I can today loosely call a career.

Stop one on the comics job express was my first trip to the MoCCA Festival in the city. Thanks to the referral of one of my former teachers in a summer science fiction story workshop, one of my first outreach ventures in the city was to meet with Tor editor David Hartwell. This wasn't an interview or anything, just a "Hey, David...won't you take this poor jobless kid to lunch?" David was supremely cool though and gave me a lot of good advice in general, but the more important discovery I made that day was randomly bumping into Tor assistant (and my former DC co-intern) Liz Gorinsky. Aside from helping put together some rad sci fi novels, Liz runs the volunteer program for New York's preeminent alternative comics festival and invited me to join in for that summer's festivities.

If you've been to MoCCA, you know how exciting the show can be for a comics reader of any stripe, and working on the show at even the most basic level is an energizing and enjoyable thing. Even mundane shit like setting up tables and selling tickets is fun at a good MoCCA, and the other folks that take part in the museum and the show are amongst the smartest and nicest I've met in the industry. But most important of all, I bought a ton of comics from some of my first Jeffrey Brown minis to a ton of printmaking-influenced comics from the PARTYKA crew and Ullman's short mini featuring true tales from the Golden Age of the NHL. High fives all around.

Shortly thereafter, I started pitching Alan David Doane on doing some writing for his recently relaunched Comic Book Galaxy site. I have no idea why I did this. I wasn't a journalism major in school (something several of my readers at Wizard and CBR have surmised over the years ;)) and at that time had no real interest in becoming a journalist or reviewer. Mostly I think I was looking for something to do with my time while I waited for more rejection e-mails to come in from publishers, and I'd seen a post somewhere at ADD was looking for people to contribute to the site.

All of this collided when "Old Timey Hockey Tales" became my first semi-amatuer published work in comics journalism. You can read it here. As you can see, the review wasn't particularly insightful or even well-written, but looking back I'm pretty sure I stand by what I said about the book (like I said, I couldn't find it to re-read for this post). That piece led to a handful of reviews and one live con report from the Detroit area alt comics fest Snap! (you can read most of my work for CBG here) as well as one disastrous pitch of a critique of event comics (the less said about that, the better).

Within a few weeks, I had to drop the CGB gig because I'd been brought on at Wizard after another "Why the hell not" round of e-mailing my resume around to try and make any kind of money. In the end, everything worked out surprisingly well considering my total lack of experience in journalism. I'm still not 100% sure how or why that is. What I do know is that I still feel extremely grateful that comics as a whole seemed to reach out to me right when I needed it. There were plenty of times during that year when I was sure I was going to return home to Michigan an abject failure, but thanks to folks like Liz, ADD and Joe Yanarella at Wizard, I ended up getting a chance to prove myself as a professional.

So I guess what I'm saying is "Thanks."

As I sit down to write this post, I’m somewhat surprised and interested to find that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman intimidates me as much in 2009 as it did in 2005 and every year prior, albeit in a somewhat different way.

In the last few posts in this series and generally when talking about my earliest comic book reading days, I think I’ve always made it pretty clear I was quite the meat and potatoes super hero guy. I’m not too ashamed to admit that before I had a peer group who exposed me to true indy comics and alternative non-capes and tights fare, I unironically thought Vertigo pretty much was indy comics and was pretty skeeved by it. Like I said during my 2003 entry, the idea of branching out beyond Marvel and DC scared me in that I figured that pretty much anything that wasn’t X-Men or Justice League was too heady for me and I’d feel dumb when I didn’t connect to the material.

Being full-time at Wizard, I began to be exposed to and expose myself to a gradually wider variety of comics via the access the company library gave me. I started small just checking out other super hero imprints I’d never explored like Valiant and WildStorm, but I did gradually begin to check out a variety of outside-the-box for me genre stuff such as 100 Bullets and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, discovering along the way both that I could appreciate comics that didn’t involve guys and gals in their underwear and also that doing so seemed to make me a better fan and professional in that I really started to get the full impact and capability of this medium I was dedicating my life to.

And yet still, of in the distance, Sandman loomed ominously.

Excepting perhaps Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, no comic book body of work had been hyped more for me than Sandman. The fact that I really didn’t care for DKR and enjoyed Watchmen, but really no more than something like Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s Avengers, made me leery of reading anything my more learned contemporaries regarded as the seminal stories of our time; I didn’t want to always be the one guy who didn’t get it.

Sandman grew in my head to some crazy threshold that should I cross it I would be passing into a comic world I could get lost in like Alice down the rabbit hole.

But I’m sure by this point you have figured out that I did in fact read Sandman in 2005, so I’ll cut the posturing and get down to it.

Long story short: I enjoyed Sandman. I got absorbed in it pretty quickly and didn’t slow down much plowing through the entire 75+ issue series in a couple months. There were some valleys (early on I wasn’t enthralled with The Doll’s House and some of the short stories collected in Fables and Reflections I found more hit than miss), however, particularly as I think back on it, there were far more peaks.

From the obvious department, yeah, I thought the Doctor Destiny story was one of the scariest fucking comics I’ve ever read, and pretty much every time Death shows up it’s sublime. I also really enjoyed A Game of You and Brief Lives, particularly the latter as I was fascinated by the expanded dynamic of the Endless and their resemblance at times to something like the Greek/Roman pantheon. Honestly though, I think my favorite Sandman story arc—and the only one I actually own—is one that Morpheus barely even has a presence in, that being Worlds’ End, Gaiman’s Canterbury Tales tribute (yes, I read Chaucer in college) in which he really gets to show off his story-telling and genre-shifting skills.

To go on a quick tangent, I actually ended up getting perhaps more into Lucifer, the psuedo-follow-up series to Sandman written by Mike Carey, featuring the retired Lord of Hell whom Gaiman introduced and used sparingly. That series took some of that old school mythological magic I was just talking about in reference to The Endless and really steps it up; Lucifer is quite underrated and I’d love to see Mike Carey write Son of Satan just because.

Getting back to Sandman, one last thing I will say is that I wasn’t always bowled over by the art, but as TJ and I have talked about in private, the art never really seemed to be the (pardon the pun) draw for the old school Vertigo titles that came before you had guys like Eduardo Risso on 100 Bullets or Mark Buckingham on Fables. With Sandman, the art is always competent and conveys exactly what Gaiman needs to say, and occasionally you get a standout performance from a Sam Kieth or Jill Thompson or Charles Vess, but for the most part you just get dependable pictures that get their point across.

So the reason I’m still a bit intimidated to write about Sandman four years later is that those three paragraphs you just read, well, that’s pretty much all I’ve got. I don’t really have any particularly deep musings on Sandman besides saying I liked it and being able to point out my favorite stories (and that it led me to Lucifer—the comic, not the embodiment of evil). I guess that shouldn’t be a really big deal, but there’s still that nervous fanboy in me who feels like I need to have more to say about comics as important as this.

But I don’t.

Ok, I will say this: I really really did get invested in Morpheus and the characters around him to the point where even though I knew the end of the series going in, I was still kinda on the edge of my seat as the issues wound down. Gaiman sure as hell knows how to tease out a character arc over the years like few others.

Honestly, Sandman probably wasn’t even my favorite comic that I read in 2005; I really did dig it and don’t want to undersell it, but I really dug Young Avengers and Green Lantern: Rebirth too. I do think Sandman was the most significant thing I read in 2005 though for a lot of the reasons I discussed above, mostly that I did conquer my great white whale and proved to myself I could do it. Despite still having that nagging feeling that I should have headier thoughts on the work, I recognized then after I finished and still do now that sometimes just enjoying a comic is enough.


Sicilian Lust said...

Kiel: don't even sweat not having a journalism background, you're a swell writer.

Rickey: Definitely agree with you on that year of DC comics. Also, props on your upbeat attitude. A lot of the comic internets is super negative, but you tune into why we even bother reading comics in the first place.

Alan David Doane said...

Hey Kiel,

I'm delighted that you'd credit your time on Comic Book Galaxy with being a part of your rise as a (very good) writer about comics. Thanks for the nod, and for all your great work for the site! Hope you and yours have a happy new year.


Rickey said...

Thanks, Mr. Lust! There were so many comics I didn't even list from DC! 100 Bullets, Sleeper Season 2, Crisis on Multiple Earths vol. 1... It's bananas.

KP said...

Awwwwwww, thanks guys!

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm grousing. It's just some days I look around and am honestly shocked that I've been getting paid to do this for going on five years. IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE!

demoncat said...

Kiel it is not written in stone that you need a journalism back ground to be a writer espically in the comic book field. Ricky glad you found happiness with dc again though have to disagree on seven soliders for grant morrisons work is too nuts. Ben sandman is a aquired taste that takes work getting through it. but worth the work.