Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Our Comics Decade: 2006

No doubt for me 2006 was the year of 52.

Only a few months into my tenure as DC contact for Wizard, my first two major assignments were steering to a compelling close the coverage of Infinite Crisis my predecessor Rich Ho had begun and coming up with my own plan to cover this new initiative. And with all due respect to Rich, while managing Infinite Crisis, DC’s biggest event in nearly two decades, certainly must have provided quite the challenge, figuring out how to give monthly love to an innovative new kind of beast—a weekly series with a rotating A-level writing team that impacted the entire publishing line—was a whole other level.

Luckily, I had a lot going for me: I had a great support team both at Wizard and at DC, I both got along with and respected the folks involved with the series, and last but not least, 52 was really really good.

Upon becoming DC contact, I inherited a huge pile of notes, sketches, etc. related to a project with the working title of “52.” My then-boss Brian Cunningham had been on hand for one of the very first meetings where 52 (I’ll take it out of quotes because obviousy the working title stuck) had been discussed, so he sat me down for a lengthy period and gave me the short version of what was being discussed (said meeting took place in the fall of 2005, over six months before 52 would actually launched, so as has been said in many interviews over the past few years a lot changed, but an impressive amount remained intact as well).

To sum it up, I was impressed, both with what a bold move this was and also by how much the folks involved had their shit together and were working so far ahead of the curve. Later on, both to my additional respect and sometimes unavoidable frustration, I’d discover they were equally adept at changing on the fly when necessary. Mostly though, I felt both because this was my first major chance to prove myself professionally and because I had such appreciation for the guys involved (Geoff Johns in particular, who as I detailed two posts ago basically got me my start), I was bound and determined to cover this sucker to the best of my ability.

The first thing I did to this end was convince my superiors that it would be a good idea to send me solo to WonderCon in San Francisco in January; it was a show that Wizard did not typically attend, but as the entire 52 writing team of Geoff, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka as well as editor Steve Wacker and DC head Dan DiDio would all be there, I saw an opportunity to kick off our coverage with a bang, and my bosses concurred.

WonderCon was a weekend of excess in some ways for me, but mostly good ways (and I’m a fairly conservative person when it comes to a lot of stuff, so “excess” for me might be tame for a lot of you). First off, Wizard put me up in a way nicer hotel room than I’d ever stayed in before, so that was pretty cool; one of the first things I did when I got there was to call Rickey (I called Megan first), tell him how sick the room was and then send him pics. I also ordered this crazy ass deep-fried sushi from room service because I was starving and had not eaten since leaving Newark.

Not long after my “dinner,” I got a call from Geoff telling me to meet him, Steve and Mark in a bar down the street. I had met Steve a couple of times at that point, but I’d never had any contact with Mark Waid, who was one of my major heroes and influence, so I was nervous and starstruck from the start. So rattled was I, in fact, that I let Geoff order me a bunch of Jack & Cokes without paying heed to the fact I hadn’t had caffeine since my freshman year of college because I was enraptured listening to Mark tell stories about writing issues of Spider-Man Team-Up in the 90’s. I think the worst that happened that night was that I completely inadvertently implied that Mark was old at some point, but the next morning my stomach and I were feeling the combination of the time change, fried sushi, and Jack & Cokes pretty bad.

I was scheduled to sit in on a closed door meeting of the 52 braintrust to observe and take notes around noon and to say I was physically a bit rough would be an understatement, something anybody who had the misfortune of being a stall over from me in the convention center restroom an hour before would be able to attest to (sorry, guy). Fortunately a quick trip to CVS to grab some Pepto Bismol and a cross-country pep talk from Joe Yanarella later and I was back in business (Geoff and Steve would later tell me they had no clue I was ready to puke into my briefcase most of the meeting).

The meeting was incredible and certainly unlike anything else I’ve ever gotten to experience in or out of comics. The natural rhythm and flow between these five creative forces working seamlessly as one was a thing to behold. During the period I observed, I got to witness more or less in its entirety the genesis and evolution of the Black Adam-Isis wedding and all the things swirling around it from large chunks of Renee Montoya’s journey all the way to the eventual murder of Osiris. At other creative summits I’ve attended, I’ve freuqently piped in with a suggestion here or there for some minor thing, but for this one, I just sat in rapt attention and watched tose gents do their thing (and not just because I was kinda queasy).

I had some other neat experiences out in San Fran (being a question plant at the 52 panel, watching Frank Miller and Jim Lee hold court at our hotel bar, mocking Christos Gage at the galling thought that he could actually get a Union Jack limited series greenlit at Marvel), but pretty quickly it was time to head home and get back to work.

As a professional working to cover 52, I had both my good times and my bad times. I loved fun little things we’d come up with on the fly (as the nature of the project often demanded) like doing a faux tabloid mock-up in one issue of Wizard covering the big mysteries/events where Greg Rucka and Keith Giffen shind as my “correspondents.” On the flipside, we did a sketchbook feature featuring what would become the Great Ten and Lex Luthor’s Infinity Inc. that was a nightmare to coordinate because there were a lot of last-minute changes going on in 52 itself (they proved positives for the book, which was of course the real priority, but stymied me a bit as a guy trying to produce coverage three months out, but that was a tightrope we often walked and fell off at Wizard).

As a fan, I loved 52, perhaps even moreso than the average dude since I got to see the whole script-to-art process at pretty much every step as my weekly FedEx packages from Alex Segura at DC came in. I will always tip my hat in reverance at how the writers were able to take perennial also-rans like Booster Gold, Ralph Dibny or Montoya and elevate them to being every bit as fleshed out and important as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in my eyes. I had immense respect for Keith Giffen’s ability as layout artist to give the book such a consistent feel despite working with literally dozens of other creative types. And perhaps above all, I marveled at the tremendous feat Steve Wacker (and later Michael Siglain accomplished) making the trains run on time. As far as personal favorite issues/moments, I gotta go with the infamous “Wicker Sue” chapter where Ralph and friends break up the ceremony that may or may not have resurrected his wife Sue both due to its incredible emotional wallop and because my buddy Todd Nauck showed once and for all he could not be boxed in as an artist simply capable of humor stories.

In the end, neither Steve nor I would make it to the end of 52 “on the inside.” He left DC for Marvel during the summer of 2006 (which is a bit deceptive as it makes it seem as though e was only onboard a few months, but in fact he’d already helped plan out at least half the series by then) and I moved from the DC beat to the Marvel one a couple months later. I actually sent Steve, Geoff, Mark and Greg a pic we’d all taken at WonderCon with mine and Steve’s faces exed out the day I got transferred with a subject line of something like “Casualties of 52: Who Will Survive?” (I don’t think I included Grant on the e-mail because Grant Morrison has better things to do than read my crappy jokes—ok, all those guys do, but I didn’t know Grant as well).

52 stands to this day for me as milestone in comic book accomplishment and I’m not sure what those guys did can ever be quite duplicated (though Mr. Wacker has done an admirable job with a similar though not exactly the same task on the thrice-weekly Amazing Spider-Man these past couple years). It was also another career milestone for me, as it was the first project I really felt a part of—whether deservingly so or not—and what a way to start.

In 2005, Grant Morrison wrote me a love letter. But I didn't really start to understand it until 2006.

It was late in 2005 when All-Star Superman dropped and a lot of the guys at the Wizard offices lost their minds over it. The issue even won top honors in the "Single Issue of the Year" category in the "Best of 2005" issue. But, really, I didn't think it was that great. Between the odd designs from Frank Quitely and the dwarf star density of the plot, I just wasn't that intrigued. I think a lot of that had to do with not understanding the All-Star line period at the time. Then, in early 2006, when I finally sat down with issue #2, my stomach began filling with nerdy butterflies AND STILL HASN'T STOPPED. The only ceiling that seemed capable of containing Grant's cosmic ideas and break-neck plot pacing was my own limit of imagination/understanding and the implied motion and flourishing detail in Quitely's art made me feel like I was watching a cartoon painted cell-by-cell by, I dunno, Moebius. And the colors! I'm convinced Jamie Grant INVENTED new hues for the series. How else do you figure out the color of a Kryptonite eye-beam shooting out of a giant synthetic man and bouncing off the indestructible back of Superman before crystallizing in space? (See issue 4, story page 14)

So instead of talking your ear off about the series, I'm just gonna give you my favorite scenes from issues #2-#5 - the issues that came out in 2006:

Issue #2 - While impressing Lois Lane with his Fortress of Solitude, Superman takes a moment to feed (by hand) a baby Sun-Eater he keeps as a damn pet. What does he feed it? A miniature sun he cracks into pebble-sized pieces with a hammer on something called The Cosmic Anvil, of course.

Issue #3 - After Atlas and Samson show up all Silver Age-y in an effort to win Lois' affections, they wind up fucking up and attracting a mad god who plans on deleting Lois from existence. This series of panels tickles me pink with A) a perfect summation of how serious the Lois/Clark love can be portrayed and B) a dope-ass threat from Superman so palpable it kinda chokes me up.

Issue #4 - When Jimmy Olsen takes over leadership of the top science program in all of human history, he pulls a boner and falls into a vat of something called the Underverse - a newly discovered realm of super-heavy gravity hidden in the basement beneath the known structure of the universe (WHAT?!). Superman not only pulls Jimmy free - he yanks out a mineral specimen from the dangerous reality with as much effort as it takes my chubby ass to shovel snow off my sidewalk.

Issue #5 - In my favorite issue of 2006, Clark Kent visits Lex Luthor in prison to do a Daily Planet story on the villain's incarceration and finds himself the first-hand witness of a superhuman riot. Frank Quitely blew my mind with this sequence as the ultra-strong Parasite's rampage creates an earthquake so vengeful it literally cannot be contained by the panels and rips the fucking page apart!

And yo, the continuity! This was the first place I noticed Grant's proclivity for stringing all his DC stories into one linear continuity all his own. DC One Million, JLA, Animal Man, 52, All-Star Superman, Batman - it's alllllllll connected, and this was the series that showed me that truth. Comic life hasn't been the same.

So I admit, the love letter wasn't to me, or even exclusively FOR me - it was meant for Superman and all the creators over the past 70+ years who have made the Man of Steel one of the most stunning examples of how far and wide comics can journey into the fun-zone of the imagination. Don't get it twisted: All-Star Superman is as wholly about the infinite possibilities of comicdom as it gets. And I'm proud to say that since 2006, after at least 7 or 8 more read-thrus, I'm proud to call it my favorite comic ever. Big words for the comic that gets me more giddy than any other. Now please go and read an issue - any issue. Bet you'll smile at least once.

And for the record, in all my years in comics, I've never spoken to or met Grant Morrison. It's kind of pathetic of me, but I just never got the chance.

Maybe my favorite moment in the whole of DC's 52 series comes at the beginning of issue #31. As the cosmic zombie legions of Lady Styx circle in on a planet that just happens to be a lot like Victorian England, all but forgotten '50s space hero Captain Comet makes a last stand, sending a desperate telepathic message across the cosmos asking for help. But no help is on the way, and so a whole civilization is eaten away by blind white cubes as its people have their chest cavities cut open with oblong scissors.

The scene is dramatic and strange and more than a little creepy, despite the fact that it relies on a few well-worn genre and character tropes and has next to nothing to do with any of the regular cast of the 52-issue weekly series. For me, that was one of the series biggest strengths – not the drama of "Can they pull it off?" or even the tension in the many mysteries confronting the main cast, but the weird inventiveness and joy that Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid were collectively able to pull out of that cut-and-pasted mess (and the DCU is a TOTAL fucking mess) of a universe.

But even considering all those brilliant left-field moments, they aren't the reason I'm writing about 52 for 2006. They just helped me through the reason I am.

See, 2006 was my first full year at Wizard, and while I could go on for a while about my experience landing and keeping the job at the magazine, all that's really germane to this discussion is that I was one of the first staffers (if not the first) tapped to work on Wizard's first stab at having a real online presence with the now defunct WizardUniverse.com. It was an odd thing that first year. Shortly before the summer con season rolled up, I was asked along with new hires Brian Warmoth and Rick Marshall to build an entire back catalog for the site by inputting former magazine features into our super jankety FileMaker Pro-based blogging system. And before we were even finished with that task, the three of us were thrown into the deep end of on online comics journalism when Wizard had its annual Philly convention where it was our stated task to "beat CBR and Newsarama" in posting panel reports and on-the-floor interviews from the show. Boy, did that suck balls.

All things considered, I think the three of us did a pretty great job that year of making the Wizard site viable in the online marketplace, and one huge part of that for me was 52. In any online venture, a big part of getting people to give a shit about what you're writing is interactivity – how many people you can get not just to show up and read or show up and comment, but to show up and link back to you from their own site. With their chock-full of fanboy Easter Eggs approach to throwing every character and their brother into the mix approach, the 52 writers gave our first year on the site a giant gift. Warmoth and I split duties with the series with him interviewing cover artist J.G. Jones each week (and it's still a fucking shame those columns are now gone) while I organized a rag tag bunch of staffers that included everyone from Ben and Rickey to Dave Paggi, TJ and a series of random interns to pitch in to the regular "52 Roundup" column highlighting each issue's biggest moments, plot twists and hidden clues.

That column was occasionally a bear to put together as I had to dive into each Wednesday's new stack of comics (on the week's we couldn't get an advance copy from DC), grab the new issue, pass it amongst the gang and then discuss, assign and write the column with their help. But most of the time it was a total blast. From the ongoing mystery of what exactly Ralph Dibny was going to find throughout his resurrection quest to whatever the hell was going on with the mad scientists of Ooolong Island, there was plenty of addictive cliffhangers carrying along our discussion each week with plenty of curveballs thrown in. And as our silly little column went along, it felt more and more like the round table chats we'd have each week at the Wizard offices was starting to spread around the internet from the site's own message boards to Douglas Wolk's invaluable 52 Pickup blog.

And even though I'd been working at the magazine and having my stuff read by several thousands of fans each month for nearly a year at that point, I didn't feel like I was a part of the broader comics community until that year. While 52 the comic dolled out its thrills over a long, slow-boil story arc, 52 coverage was all about the instantaneous gratification of geeking out over moment of continuity or making some extremely corny (and sometimes just plain mean) joke to see how many people you could get to laugh along. I'm sure that can be said of damn near all writing on the internet, but I never really felt that way about what I did until that 52 column. By the end of it, we even had the writers following along (sometime at a con, ask me about the scariest e-mail I ever got from Mark Waid), though those interactions are dwarfed by what I'm sure Ben's writing about for this year (and if he doesn't include that photo from his Facebook page, he's cheating you poor bastards).

Anyway, the first iteration of the Wizard website collapsed shortly after my year of 52-ing (plus I had to write about Countdown each week during the decline...woof), and it would be easy for me to look upon the whole enterprise as something that never came together in the way I'd quite hoped. But just like 52 the series, that website's bright spots and downturns and (hilariously) dramatic moments added up to a lot more than they'd seem if held in amber (or mylar, to keep my metaphors in house). I wish those archives were still around.

[NOTE: Since it was my turn to post one of these entries, and I see now that Ben did NOT in fact post that pic off of Facebook on the site, I'm doing for him. HAHA! - KP]


Rickey said...

Oh Jesus, you know what, Kiel? i forgot that 2006 was the year I had to do Civil War Room. I read at LEAST 100 Marvel books that year tying into that event and had to spearhead the same kind of column as your 52 joint. How INSANE was that whole thing?

Ben Morse said...

Civil War Room and 52 Pick-Up (was that the name, Kiel?) were both a delight, but nothing--NOTHING--compared to the Countdown columns simply for David Paggi's vocal rendition of Jason Todd.

Horny Loki said...

Wait, you guys didn't like Countdown?

demoncat said...

i agree with Kyle Ben how could you and Ricky not like count down for unlike final crisis the thing actully worked. and love the picture . as for grant Morrions all star superman . sorry Ricky avoided it for to me Grant morrison playing with the dc universe is like he dipped it in acid.

Rickey said...

I loved that fight in Countdown between orion and Darkseid. You remember that? Madness.

Men Borse said...

Countdown, in a few years, will be viewed much more positively. Great bunch of writers, exciting stories, and brilliant editing.

Ben Morse said...

How did you find me, Men Borse?!