Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why I Left Comics

Despite the bold and emotional proclamations we may make when our favorite character is killed or a book we loves get cancelled, I don’t believe comic fans on the whole tend to leave their passion for the medium behind in one grand sweeping gesture. Rather, I think multiple factors tend to contribute to gradual erosion in enthusiasm that dulls the flame to the point where it’s not worth nurturing for the time being rather than stomping it out entirely.

For me, it’s tempting to simply say high school was the cut off point for my first life as a comic book fan and college brought about my second chapter (well, not that tempting, I do want this blog post to be more than two paragraphs), but certainly there was more to it.

Make no mistake though, high school played a role. For one thing, I suddenly had a lot of other interests to occupy my time, be it sports (I played soccer my freshman year and wrestled all four), the school newspaper, plays, and so on; my time to sit around reading about super heroes became more and more limited as I had other things to do. There was also the transference of funds and energy to parties and other distractions that weren’t on my radar in prior years. I saw my social outcast status fade a bit once I turned 14 or so; I don’t think I ever quite reached big man on campus level, but people seemed to generally like me enough to let me know what was going on over the weekend.

More than anything though, the friends I bonded with over comics drifted from the hobby, and certainly if there was any high school stereotype that proved true for me it was the follow the pack mentality, at least in some cases like this. With my buddies no longer making the pilgrimage to New England Comics or wanting to talk X-Men at lunch, those things held less interest for me as well (although in a story I can now chuckle at, I did continue “covertly” trekking to the comics shop every couple weeks for awhile, acting like I had stopped reading comics when I was still buying a few, and ran into a friend of mine who was doing the same; we both were mortified and didn’t acknowledge the encounter for some time, actually until I ran into him at New York Comic Con last year and said “Remember when…”).

It wasn’t just social contributors though. Comics lost me in the mid to late 90’s because a lot of the stuff that had fueled my fandom seemed to coincidentally wind down around the same time. There was good stuff like Grant Morrison’s JLA, Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s Avengers and more I wouldn’t experience for a bit after they came out because a lot of the stuff I was reading conspired to provide me with a convenient jumping off point. Here’s where I abandoned ship on the books that had been my childhood/young adolescent favorites…

What would be roughly a year-long process of me slowly going from a healthy number of monthly comic book purchases to none began in July of 1995 with the conclusion of the Age of Apocalypse. Whereas today I’m able to appreciate that event as the fun alternate reality epic it was, at the time, it was one of the first proclamations to a naïve 13-year old that comics changed. To that point, while I had been aware on some level of creators coming and going, directions changing and so forth, for the most part I still saw my most cherished books and characters as remaining in a state I could recognize them, typified by the 90’s X-Men titles, driven by a never-ending soap opera about people in colorful costumes drawn by guys with a splashy style that matched at least in part the Saturday morning cartoon show.

I remember reading in Wizard how the plug was going to be pulled on the X-Men books with no real explanation beyond that and not learning about the concept behind Age of Apocalypse until a couple weeks later via the Marvel Hotline (as a former Wizard employee now, I have to wonder to myself how much of the story they knew at the time and held back to help Marvel build an air of history; need to ask Brian Cunningham or Pat McCallum next time I see them). Comics were still vitally important to me at the time and in a childlike way that the idea I would “lose” so many of my favorites really shook me up (if 13-year-old me had been around for the New 52, he may have had a stroke).

When the X-Men books resumed their normal runs post-AoA (and without the Internet we did not know at the time when that would be if ever at the time), I regarded them with caution, feeling they had burned me once and I didn’t want to experience it again (I’m aware of how melodramatic that sounds, but I was 13 and hadn’t had a girlfriend yet, so work with me). In particular, I was unwilling to give the new incarnation of X-Force, once among my top titles, a chance. Fabian Nicieza, my favorite writer at the time, jumped off and was replaced by Jeph Loeb, whom I knew nothing about at the time. Tony Daniel, whose art I was really getting into, was replaced by Adam Pollina, whose style was not just radically different than the “X-Men house style” of the time, but just about anything I’d ever seen beyond those Vertigo books I never bought; he also almost immediately ditched the varied costumes for a uniform purple and yellow look.

But more than anything, the mission statement of the book was changing entirely, with the team going from a group of teenagers living on their own (with their gruff cyborg mentor) to moving back into the X-Mansion. As I have come to know Jeph to be a talented writer and a swell dude to boot, I apologize for not giving his run more of a chance, but there are few things less cool to a 13-year old than his heroes essentially moving back in with their parents. As the capper, Cannonball, my favorite character in the book, was “graduating” to the X-Men, so it felt like it was time for me to do the same.

I started picking up Justice League America around the time Superman died to get a better sense of the DC Universe. Truth be told, I was never that into it and didn’t feel like it was fulfilling that goal by letting me know what The Ray, Fire and Bloodwynd were up to on a monthly basis. It became more of a reflex buy for me the same way Silver Surfer or Iron Man was; a book I didn’t love, but I did like having a lot of new comics to read every month. After Zero Hour, when Gerard Jones took over as writer and centered the book a lot around the weird love square between Nuklon, Fire, Obsidian and Icemaiden with The Flash maybe getting something to do every three issues, I lost interest quickly. I stuck around because they dangled the carrot of Guy Gardner coming back to the team, but once it became evident he wasn’t sticking around, I dumped the book in August of 1995.

I began reading Captain America in 1993 or so admittedly because of the stunt “Fighting Chance” storyline where Cap’s Super Soldier Serum was going bad and he only had a year to live. Yes, it was goofy with the pouch-filled vest, the armor and Jack Flag, but I ate up every chapter of Mark Gruenwald and Dave Hoover’s year-long story. When they jumped off the book (and Cap disappeared mysteriously) in September of 1995, I did the same, figuring I’d come in for this story only and didn’t have any interest in a long term commitment (I did the same thing more or less with the Death and Return of Superman). Ironically, the next run was the to-this-day highly regarded Mark Waid/Ron Garney collaboration cut short but Heroes Reborn and I would not get to read it until years later.

I had tried to give the main X-Men books a chance even after I dropped X-Force, but that didn’t last long. I was kind of intrigued by the Onslaught mystery and loved Joe Madureira’s art, but weirdly Age of Apocalypse really botched it for me as I just couldn’t get into the characters as I had before. Having gone back and caught up on what I missed during the years I was gone since, I kind of wish I had stuck with it, because stuff like Operation: Zero Tolerance and the later Joe Kelly/Stephen Seagle run was right in my wheelhouse, but I said goodbye to the comics that had really been my childhood lynchpin during the fall of 1995, though I would continue following their animated adventures for another two years.

I bounced in and out of the Spider-Man books for a lot of the Clone Saga, Amazing Spider-Man and Web of Spider-Man being my primary titles of choice. Because that era was my entry point, I knew no other Spider-Man, and just assumed it had always been full of mysterious strangers, shocking reveals and omnipotent villains just like X-Men. As I began to cotton to the fact that this was not really the case and the creative teams waxed and waned between restoring the status quo to “the good old days” but then lurched back into another clone showing up to keep that thing running, I strained a bit from feeling like I was caught in the middle of a tug of war. When Ben Reilly took over as Spider-Man would have seemed the ideal jumping off point, but I was still somewhat under the impression the saga was finally winding to a close; around the time Spider-Carnage debuted in April of 1996, I gave up.

I’m sure it won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog to learn that New Warriors was the toughest comic for me to give up—in fact, I never did. I stuck with the book all the way to its cancellation with issue #75 in September of 1996, the same month I started high school interestingly and poetically enough (childhood’s end and all that). The stuff that had driven me off other books didn’t faze me when it came to the Warriors. Fabian Nicieza left with issue #50, but I found Evan Skolnick to be a very capable successor. Nova, Namorita and Night Thrasher were written out, but I stuck around for Justice, Firestar, Speedball and the new recruits. Even the altering of the seminal logo wasn’t enough to get rid of me (and that was a big deal, I assure you). I may have missed an issue here and there, but that was only because I was going to the shop less and less, so sometimes I’d forget the shipping schedule and they’d sell out, as New Warriors was not a book my retailer was getting in bulk.

As I’ve said before, I felt New Warriors ended on an appropriate note, with Skolnick bringing the full team back together and I do feel like those 75 issues constitute a complete story for me that subsequent revamps have left untouched. Still, it was a seismic shift for me as a fan, with my favorite comic being cancelled (despite my letter writing campaign of one letter to Marvel Vision) and me re-evaluating how into all this I still was.

Superboy was my favorite DC character as a kid (I liked the concept of The Flash, but didn’t know the person behind the mask that well yet). It was oddly serendipitous that at almost the exact same time New Warriors was coming to an end, Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett, the creative team that introduced Superboy and crafted the first two-plus years of his book, were moving on. If I had still been buying a lot of comics, I likely would have kept up with Superboy, but as I was pretty much done by the fall of 1996, their exit seemed an appropriate sign. In fairness, I did give the new creative team a few issues and really wanted to like it given how much I enjoyed Ron Marz on both Silver Surfer and Green Lantern, but even though they kept the same supporting cast and setting, the book felt different enough that it wasn’t too hard to move on (little did I know that 15 years later Superboy would be completely unrecognizable to a kid who grew up reading about him).

Strangely, as best I can tell, the final comic I was reading on a reading on a regular basis was Legion of Super-Heroes. This was odd because I’d come into the book late (I didn’t start until after Zero Hour in 1994), the characters had no recognition outside of comics (I never watched a cartoon with them or anything) and…well, Legion was just an odd book for me to end on. Don’t get me wrong, I thought that era was great, but it’s wild to me that I hung on with Legion of Super-Heroes longer than I did X-Men, Superboy and New Warriors. The split of the team and marooning half of them in the past where they suddenly weren’t as unique likely contributed to my severing ties.

(I should note the fact that I dropped my final two DC titles during Final Night speaks not to a disdain for that story, which I like, it was just coincidental timing)

And so as 1996 drew to a close, I was out of comics. I would check in now and again if I happened to spy a rack in a CVS or something over the next couple years and always checked what they had when I went to a bookstore, but for the most part, I was comics-free from 1997 to nearly 2001.

That, of course, is another story…


vollsticks said...

I left comics for heroin. Then I left heroin for comics. The latter was the best choice, I think.

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