Monday, January 18, 2010

Our Comics Decade: 2007

2007 was a year chock fucking full of great comics. The short list of books I dug that also seem to qualify as critical darlings includes Exit Wounds, Town Boy, The Blot and Bookhunter not to mention everything Gipi had hitting. And there were scads of amazing mainstreamy projects from Criminal to The Immortal Iron Fist to the first of those jaw-dropping Kirby reprints DC put out.

And for me personally, 2007 was a year where I did a lot of writing that was both challenging and rewarding (yet not always both at the same time!) I wrote a profile on artist Brett Booth's return to the limelight after a year of living in a van (sounds more dramatic than it was, but still a great story), finished a mega-engaging and mega-controversial profile of Darwyn Cooke (better saved for another post, me thinks) and a profile on Kirby's creation of the Fourth World (still SUPER bummed that thing never saw print).

And I was looking over all these great books and all these great memories from that 12-month period and trying to decide which one thing I could write about...and then I just thought, "Fuck it. I'ma write about G.I. Joe!" And not just any G.I. Joe series but a G.I. Joe series with the added layer of jingoist absurdity that is the subtitle "America's Elite" as well as the chronically overused/unimaginative story title of "World War III." Even if you're a little predisposed to like G.I. Joe in general, that sounds pretty silly, right?

But, a lot of people my age, I'm a big fan of Larry Hama's '80s run on the Marvel G.I. Joe series. At its best, that book was a prime example of straight to awesomeness comics craftsmanship – well-paced, smartly-written and highly entertaining comics. At its worst, that book was still fired from the hip in each new issue, pulling gonzo sci-fi surprises and inexplicably fun plot twists from God only knows where. It was unsurprisingly a great gateway comic for young people and a cultural artifact from an era when comics still had a chance at holding that mainstream junk culture status and blah blah blah, you've heard it all before.

I feel like I should cop to the strong associations I have to the franchise in general from my elementary days and the burgeoning would-be comics professional's appreciation I have for Hama's work right out front. Nostalgia obviously plays a HUGE part in why I started picking up this series from the Wizard office comp stack that year, and I'm positive that I wouldn't have enjoyed the final year of the Devil's Due run on the series nearly as much without that childhood fondness in full effect. That said, writer Mark Powers and artist Mike Bear still pulled one hell of a story out of "World War III." It's got everything that you'd be looking for in an over-the-top action comic about a highly trained special missions force with an unlimited budget for transforming tank/helicopter/space shuttle laser-powered vehicles fighting against a serpent-themed terrorist force with similar capabilities as well as wild super science on their side. Cobra hatches a real plan to take over the world, spreads the resources of the Joe team super thin in a fire-fight across the great cities of the globe, kidnaps the president and fires a bunch of bombs all over hell's half acre. In terms of "going out with a bang" the creative team raised the stakes for the entire franchise and expanded the scope of the whole series, bringing some actual consequences into play for characters built on being locked in an eternal stalemate. All of this is played with a surprising amount of subtly by Powers and drawn with some great, gritty (in the best sense of the word) atmosphere along with a lot of clean, crazy action pieces at the hands of Bear and his collaborators. Plus, whether you notice it or not, there are a million little nods to continuity bull and character arcs from the old Marvel series that don't get in the way of the action.

It's fun comics.

And sure, there are plenty of criticisms to level against this kind of thing. Were these comics created specifically for an ever-shrinking fan-base obsessed with the minutia of the stories of their youth? Pretty much, yeah. Was the book cancelled during the course of the story line by not even meeting the sales standards the licensor expected even considering that small, inbred market? Yup. Is this a comic whose shelf life only extends maybe a year or two past its initial serialization? I'm betting that's a big "Uh huh."

But I really could give two fucks. We're lucky enough to live in a world where new, interesting, challenging, beautiful works hit every year, pushing the boundaries of comics as art and entrenching the medium more and more into a popular and respectable place in the broader culture landscape. I love living in that world, not only because I get to track that great growth in comics quality and popularity as a reader and reporter, but also because when a good ol' fashioned slice of comic book comfort food comes along, I can dive in and enjoy it for what it is without having depressing thoughts of, "Is this really what we've come to?!?!?!" running through my head. Isn't that a great thing?

In the summer of 2007, I came to a major crossroads in my professional life. Following my and Rickey’s super-successful hosting of the Wizard Fan Awards at Wizard World Chicago for the second straight year (or more accurately later that evening), my old chum and former Wizard editor Ryan Penagos, who had since moved over to Marvel where he was editor of, brought up with me the potential of coming onboard as his assistant (he didn’t offer me the job outright, mind you, just the opportunity to interview for it).

The idea of leaving Wizard wasn’t actually anything new at that point, as I had interviewed for positions both at DC and Marvel in the year leading up; however, first those were both straight-up publishing editorial gigs, and second, with each I had a chance of landing the job, but not an amazing one. With Ryan’s offer, I stood a significantly better chance of actually getting the position, though I would be transitioning from working in print back to the web.

I went into Marvel a couple times, interviewed pretty well, and got to meet (or re-meet) some of the folks I’d be working with; I really felt at home there pretty instantly and also the idea of moving back over to the digital side of media was starting to really grow on me as I saw the potential. However, signing on with Marvel wasn’t really such a tough decision (I’d wanted to work there since I was about eight—this was the dream), it was leaving Wizard.

Say what you will about Wizard Magazine, but the people there were very good to me. They took a shot on me straight out of college and provided me with all the contacts in the comics industry I needed to make a (potentially) lifelong career. Additionally, I owe guys like Pat McCallum, Dan Reilly, Joe Yanarella, Brian Cunningham, Mike Cotton, Andy Serwin, Jesse Thompson, Mel Caylo and plenty I’m forgetting a ton not just for helping me come into my own as a writer or an editor, but in many ways adopting me and helping me learn how to live as an adult truly away from home for the first time.

The people running Wizard were also not shy about letting me know how much they appreciated me when I told them I was thinking about leaving for Marvel, both in the form of heartfelt words as well as the offer of a potential raise and promotion. I spoke to pretty much everybody important in my life, from Megan, my friends and my family to comics pros I respected about what road I should go down. Appropriately enough, it came down once more to Geoff Johns, who offered me the advice that every few years you need to look at what you’re doing with your life and determine whether there’s still room for you to grow and try new things in your current situation, or whether you’ve pretty much gone as far as you could go there; for me, leaving Wizard wasn’t about money, or mistreatment or any grudge, it was simply a matter of having achieved all I could there and wanting the new challenges that Marvel represented.

One of those new challenges was chucking years of travelling primarily by car out the window and adapting to a daily train commute from my home in Saddle Brook, New Jersey into New York City. At the time, I was aghast, always having been a hardcore car guy, but now, just over two years later, I take the train everywhere I can possibly go. A big draw for train travel to a guy like me is that once you get your schedule and commute down, you can very easily lose yourself in a book, magazine or comic, which is exactly what I did.

Interestingly enough, one of the very first things I utilized my new train commute into Marvel to read was Maus. I say this was interesting because reading Maus was something I was supposed to do for Wizard, but just never got around to.

Earlier in 2007, the aforementioned Joe Yanarella called me into his office and tasked me with conducting Wizard’s first major feature/interview involving Art Spiegelman. For those not familiar, Spiegelman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, writer, editor, etc. viewed by most as of one the—if not the—most important and respected figures in the alternative comics movement. He’s a certifiable genius, a huge advocate for creator rights, and has won a bazillion awards, so needless to say he’s a huge deal.

Joe had reached out to Spiegelman and gotten him to agree to an interview with Wizard, which was kinda tantamount to Entertainment Weekly landing an interview with Nelson Mandela to discuss Invictus in terms of a legitimizing event. Wizard had long been seen as the unruly frat house of comics, so a working relationship of any sorts with Art Spiegelman, complete with meaty interview and profile, would be a huge first step in Joe’s savvy plan to up the mag’s profile and pedigree.

The only problem was I had no idea why he wanted me to do it.

Yeah, I was the primary staff writer at the time and, don’t get me wrong, I think I’m pretty decent at what I do, but I had an embarrassingly limited knowledge of Spiegelman and his work as well as alternative comics in general. Also, I had tanked my last major profile assignment on Bill Messner-Loebs big-time. Undaunted, Joe said he had faith I could pull it off—and I appreciate that to this day—and sent me home with Wizard’s copy of Maus and orders to get a crash course from Kiel and Sean on all things Spiegelman.

As it turned out, Kiel would end up going to WonderCon that year in my place (I can’t remember precisely why) to meet and take initial notes on Spiegelman, though Joe still intended me to ultimately be the guy conducting the feature. The interview kept getting moved further and further back until I made my intentions about potentially leaving for Marvel known, at which point it was decided that Kiel—who had already logged plenty of time on this and was way more familiar with Spiegelman and his world to boot—would inherit the assignment regardless of whether I stayed or went. It took awhile, but Kiel did eventually publish the profile and I for one am extremely glad he did as opposed to be, because it was a damn fine piece.

So getting back to the main point here, I had this perfectly good copy of Maus, one of the most highly-touted works of graphic literature of all-time, and it seemed a shame not to read it before having to return it to Wizard. So read it I did in some of my very first train rides to and from New York City.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about how great Maus is, since obviously it has won a friggin’ Pulitzer and if you really want to read some decent essays praising it you can find them pretty easily. I’ll simply say that I enjoyed the heck out of it and started actively looking forward to my two-hour roundtrip simply because I wanted to get to the next chapter and see what happened. I’ll also say that one thing I’ve certainly learned from reading more indy or alternative comics in the past couple years is how they all seem to aspire to using a more down-to-earth conversational tone and yet still convey excitement and heightened emotion worthy of visual accompaniment; I’ve seen both hits and misses in this regard, but no bigger home run than Maus, where Spiegelman goes about just telling a story the same way he likely would if he were sitting right across from you sans theatrics or explosions and yet it’s the most exciting, tantalizing narrative you could imagine, complimented perfectly by his art, subversively placing cute animals into such horrific situations as the Holocaust and mundane ones like a mid-life semi-crisis.

Though my father is Jewish and thus I’m half myself, I don’t consistently feel a real kinship to that faith by virtue of not being raised that way, by having many Christian influences in my life, by my dad really not being all that religious, and so on; however, Maus is one of those works that reminds me that I am a part of an often terrible one, yet one that yielded incredible stories and amazing survivors. Little about Maus could really be called uplifting, but that it connected me in some way with part of my heritage, albeit through tragedy, did give me some sense of odd pride. I also never felt lost or confused by it, a testament to the man who created a story that could win a Pulitzer yet appeal to the masses as well.

I’d still be terrified to try and interview Art Spiegelman though.

If you look up the year 2007 in the dictionary you'll find "The shit" next to the definition because that's what the year was for me - THE SHIT.

That was the year my girlfriend moved up from Austin, Texas to live with me in the New York area (marking the first time we ever lived in the same town together), and it was the year I did several movie set visits (The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Iron Man) for Wizard as part of my new role as Entertainment Editor. And 2007 was the first year I ever went to San Diego Comic-Con, this little show out on the west coast. I was so busy at the show that I didn't get a chance to give the floor a thorough probing, but I did make time to stroll through artist's alley. Even though I was generally let down by the selection, I DID find a book unlike anything I'd ever seen before: boy's club #1 by Matt Furie!

I was at the Sparkplug booth and overheard a random guy telling the cashier that he's seen Matt Furie's art show in LA and loved the book, which they were distributing. So I flipped through it and actually chuckled out loud at the unnaturally nuclear levels of goofy irreverence (goofeverence?) inside. Imagine four endearing, harmless, pop-culture quoting, hot dog-eating, video game-addicted, beer-guzzling, pot-devouring anthropomorphic dudes just hanging out and living together in que sera sera bliss. Now imagine they invited you to hang out at their place for 40 deceptively simple pages and you've just pictured the most care-free day you never realized you could have - and the funniest, most fun comic I've ever read. And shit, this book reminds me of some of my friends so much that I can pick it up and read any page and it's practically like I'm hanging out with them (I'm looking at you, David and Kiel).

That first issue find was a grand one, too. The book doesn't have any indicia, copyright or website info, so I had to look up Furie's name and the name of the book online. I couldn't find dick, and none of my friends had heard of the book, so I just had to wait till a new issue came out. Luckily issue #2 did. And then so did issue #3! My first print of issue #1 is at a slightly larger scale than the more recent printings, too, so BONUS! I finally met Furie at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, and he even did a Watchmen sketch for me. But never before or since that 2007 show have I ever blind-found a new creator or book that so perfectly encapsulated what I love about comics - or what I never realized I COULD love about comics.

P.S. My BFF Sean T. Collins wrote about the series here. Check out his better-written reasons why you'd love the comic. He's got better sample images than I do, too.

1 comment:

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