When I was a kid comic books were nearly exclusively super-hero based. They were dull and silly. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some good writing in those stories. It’s just that nearly every super-hero story was merely a mask for some adolescent insecurity or pre-adolescent craving. There’s a place for that but I couldn’t bring myself to care when I was pre-adolescent or adolescent, so I certainly couldn’t commit to the genre afterwards.
But that’s not entirely true. I think the first comic I ever read with serious attention was a Batman series. It was an actual book, a collected volume, and I maybe eight or nine living on a military base in Missouri. The story was Man-Bat vs. Batman, I can remember wandering through the post library just exploring the shelves (a practice I still engage in today) and being constantly drawn back to the book.
The colors were washed out yet clean, the story wasn’t some sappy super-hero needs to save the world/city from the villain kind of thing. It was about a man, Batman, trying to figure out what was happening to another man, Man-Bat, and how to help him. I guess these Batman stories were written by Frank Robbins in 1970/71 and that the book I stumbled upon was put out in 1984. I never looked for more comics after encountering that series but it stuck with me.
I wouldn’t have another encounter with comics again until the first year after high school. I was in the painfully tiny town of Richland, Wisconsin attending the University of Wisconsin-Center there. What does that mean? In the UW system, two-year colleges were called Centers and Richland Center was the nearest to my home town of Sparta. It was essentially like living at high school. That is, if your high school and home looked like re-purposed Pizza Huts circa the 80s. There I kept to myself, read, and wrote in a desperate attempt to get elsewhere. But one of the people I met there was a comic nerd and he exposed me to Neil Gaimen. It wasn’t Gaimen’s comics he showed me the comedic novel Good Omens.
The book was charming, immediately endearing me to Gaimen’s work. It was then that I was given The Sandman series. I hadn’t seen a comic like this before. It’s images were playful and beautifully art nouveau at times, not just dark. The goth kid in me was in love. I can remember devouring my friend’s comics–he had the entire series, well up to a point.
It was 1995 and The Wake was still yet to happen. This was the first series I ever followed as The Wake was released that year (1995/96). The story of Dream was what really drew me in and spurred my imagination. Later in my college career when I was on the other side of the state in Kenosha attending Carthage College, I was finally able to purchase the collected volumes of The Sandman–the first one being The Wake.
Yet still, this was a one-off experience. I didn’t look for more or other comics (not even Gaimen’s). But it did lead to my third comic experience. While at Carthage a girl I dated was deep into alternative comics. Her particular favorite was Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.
For various reasons, we didn’t last as a couple. I never told her just how much I loved this comic. It still reminds me of that time for all it’s madness and stupidity. What really gripped me about Jhonen Vasquez’s series was just how serious and ashamed it was. I suppose this explains why goth kids and post-goth kids like myself at the time gravitated towards it. Many of us were painfully earnest yet wholly embarrassed by ourselves.
I was studying Continental philosophy (Heidegger, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, and so much Levinas), radical pedagogy, and feminist thought (so much bell hooks). I was convinced I was a serious poet-critic as I wrote poems in imitation of Robin Glaser and William Bronk. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac brought me back down to earth. It lead me to realize that I was taking myself way too seriously, that I was deeply angry with everything around me, and that I needed to get over it all.
That’s three moments that I can say for certain I paid attention to comics. After each encounter, I didn’t follow up to learn more about comics or graphic novels (a term that came into existence during this time). But each time my personal aesthetic was altered and, thus, my own sense of self and ethic. Much like a lot of other geekery, I wanted comics to be cooler than they were. I’ve always been an end-user. I want you to fix all the bugs and have something seamless for me before I incorporate it into my life. While this is primarily my stance toward technology, I find it often bleeds over into other areas and one of which is comics.
Comics are a proper genre now. It is still dominated by the super-hero tripe but even that is vastly superior to what it use to be. The storytelling is stronger; the narrative more meaningful and worthy of attention. So, over the last two months, I’ve decided to try to get into comics. At least, in some small degree.
Here in Lawrence, KS there’s a fairly comfortable comic shop called AstroKitty. I’ve been popping in here and there to see what there is in this world to interest me. Part of this urge has come from the essays written over at The Stake. The reviews of She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, Saga, and Pretty Deadly were enough to convince me that there are engaging and entertaining stories being told. But I didn’t want to jump into a series midstream. I wanted to find new stories and enter stories from the beginning.
My first purchase was based in part around what I had read at The Stake. I got the recent issue of Pretty Deadly. This was essentially me doing the opposite of starting from the beginning. In fact, I picked up what turns out to be the first volume finale. Pretty Deadly looks to have all the visual qualities that I loved about The Sandman as well as the storytelling potential. I decided to get more familiar with Kelly Sue DeConnick, so I also picked up Ghost #3. The Ghost series looks to be more bloody and super-hero-y than I like. I have a very low threshold for gore-porn or violence-for-violence sake. That’s not to say that Ghost was that to a tee, it’s just the issue I picked up felt like it was catering to that aesthetic. However, I plan on looking deeper into the series (at the very least, I need to complete the set that DeConnick has been doing).
But what I really enjoyed was Garth Ennis’s Caliban. I’m a sucker for space-madness stories and it looks as though this series will fulfill that desire. My second run saw me pick up the second Caliban and a second printing of the series Velvet.
Spy stories don’t really engage me, I’ve never been a Bond guy. Also, I find noir to be dull–stylized and unique, but dull. Velvet is a mixture of these sub-genres only with a woman secret agent (who looks to me to be a Johnette Napolitano fantasy). There is a wonderful cinematic quality to Velvet. As one of the few people on the planet who really enjoyed Haywire and thinks a Wonder Woman film series should be built around Gina Carano, this comic appealed to me. I don’t think I’ll have much to say about it but I’ve decided to follow it.
But to get back on track and find new series to follow, my third trip to AstroKitty found me picking up Translucid. This story from Chondra Echert and Claudio Sanchez looks to undermine the traditional super-hero vs. super-villain dynamic. The first issue is merely a introductory platform, but it’s suggesting a deep psychological entwining between its protagonist (The Navigator) and antagonist (The Horse). Super-heroes are played out, mostly due to Hollywood’s obsession with creating blockbuster film franchises that whitewash all dynamism from the story and its iconography. A new superhero? Can that even happen without being some kind of melding of what we already have and know so well? Getting an answer to this question is why I’m going to follow this series.
Last week saw me walk away with issues one and two of Shutter as well as the first issue of Minimum Wage. Apparently, Minimum Wage was a indie comic back in the 90s that ended just before the new century. It still has that rogue comic air, a kind of DIY storytelling. Unfortunately, this is a story I’m uninterested in and it’s unlikely I’ll read more. While not a bad comic, Minimum Wage is a style, an attitude that I have no interest in–it’s that kind of skate punk that feels less working class and more class-less, a smart man’s white trash. All of that, while true, is unfair to the comic. All I know is, this comic is telling a story I’m not interested in.
Which is kinda unfortunate given that Minimum Wage is the most realistic comic I’ve encountered and I should be looking to read more realist comics. In the other direction, I discovered Shutter. This series looks to share some aspect with Translucid (in a very minor way) and I’ve read folks compare it to Saga. What I’m seeing is a kind of Venture Bros like story. The protagonist is an explorer in a fantastic alternative universe, the daughter of a adventuring explorer who was himself a child of an adventuring explorer and so on and so forth. The protagonist, Kate Kristopher, moves in a magical and scifi Earth as a mix between Dr. Venture and Indiana Jones. It is the immediate depth of this story that hooked me, the vastness and richness of this world is wonderfully conveyed in the artwork but also in the subtle hints in the narrative.
Finally, yesterday I stopped in for no real reason. I knew that there wasn’t anything I was really looking to buy, yet I still talked myself into getting something. In this case, I took away the first and second of The Returning. A horror comic with plenty of violence (shooting, physical and sexual assault), it looks as though this series is trying to put a new spin on the zombie metaphor. I think it’s succeeding. These aren’t actual zombies, but they are a kind of undead. In this world, people who have had near death experiences–those who have technically died but were brought back by medicine–develop a kind of blood lust becoming inordinately violent. The ‘changers’ are still human but they look to kill non-changers due, apparently, to their brush with death. What got me about this series wasn’t just the premise (which I do find interesting) but the rather breakneck pace of the story.
So, here I am a nearly 38 year old man buying comic books. Comics have worked out the bugs and as a proper end-user, I’m ready to get started. I don’t think I’m going to become a collector, but I do think I am going to start following certain series and looking for new stories. In fact, I hope to write some more in depth reviews of Shutter, Caliban, and, perhaps, The Returning for The Stake or elsewhere (most likely here). Good things demand comment.
There’s a certain kind of pleasure in following a series regularly and in acquiring a back catalog. In fact, it’s quite similar to the music collector impulse. Within me there’s a tiny librarian who wants to have a proper atheneum encompassing music, print, and film.