Sunday, September 14, 2014

What it meant

One of my earliest memories is of reading a comic. We were at one of those highly-regulated and organized suburban vacation spots called Camp Dearborn. It's actually owned by the city of Dearborn, MI but is 35 miles away in Milford, MI. I have no idea why. They had canvas-roofed cabins that you could rent, a small lake, a swimming pool, a golf course, hayrides, and the whole nine yards. Very Midwest; very "get away for a weekend"-type thing, and that's exactly what I remember us doing. I was four years old and I was sitting in one of the cabins reading an issue of Man-Thing, Marvel's answer to DC's Swamp Thing (in fact, the same writer had worked on both as many of them drifted back and forth between the Big Two in those years) and another example of Marvel's return to horror comics after its neutering of the Comics Code a couple years earlier. We had been sharing a couple of the cabins with another family we knew and I was in the "boys' cabin" and had a small pile of comics with me. My vague memory says that most of them were mine, but I knew that one of the older boys had a few with him, as well. They had decided to leave before us at that point or were perhaps just running home for a while (the camp at the time was only about an hour from our home) and he burst into the cabin, grabbed a bunch of the comics, including the one in my hand, and ran out. I don't remember which issue it was and I don't remember being particularly outraged that I'd been interrupted and perhaps even had something stolen from me. I just remember that the images of that comic stayed with me and turned into an almost lifelong obsession.

I met someone recently and dropped a Stan Lee reference. We'd been texting about being enchanted and it turned into an exchange of synonyms: beguiled, befuddled, bamboozled, bemused. She mentioned that she liked the alliteration and I said I couldn't help it. I'd read too many Stan Lee comics as a kid. Lee frequently titled his columns "Bullpen Bulletins" or "Stan's Soapbox" or was fond of referring to the readers in ways like "the fightin', ferocious, fantabulous fans of fun!!" Any quick look at many of his early characters (J. Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Peter Parker) demonstrates that this was a regular habit of his. My new friend mentioned that she wasn't really a fan (fightin' or otherwise) but she was fascinated(!) by people that were and what they got out of comics or why they enjoyed them. That, of course, got me to thinkin'...

Alliteration fer reals. No one has ever really determined why he has to wear pants, either.

I think most kids are into superheroes to one degree or another. One only has to look at Marvel's film success over the past decade to see some of that. I don't remember what my particular attachment became early on and what led me to collect over 30,000 of them in the intervening years. I do remember that I was far more interested in the stories themselves than the accompanying artwork. I wanted to know why Cyclone had kidnapped J. Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man #143 and why Mary Jane Watson seemed to be having a really hard time in her relationship with Peter Parker (my own parents were getting divorced around this same time.) Furthermore, I really wanted to know why Mary Jane ended that issue by uttering the phrase "Far freakin' out." which was the same exclamation that Green Arrow used at the end of an issue of Justice League of America! (Drifting writers again.) That's not to say that I wasn't interested in the accompanying art. I remember picking up my first copy of magazines like Heavy Metal (the American version of the French Métal Hurlant) or Marvel's own Epic Illustrated and being engrossed in the painting of artists like Mœbius, Richard Corben, and Jim Starlin. Both Marvel and DC would also later venture into more daring artistic approaches with people like Dave McKean and I would remain a fan of the moody approach of Matt Wagner and many, many others. But it was really always the stories that hooked me and what had led people to create them...

Beta Ray Bill, FTW!

... which is kind of funny in one respect because I'm a ferocious critic of story and when you look back at many of the comics that I loved at the time they were produced, like the above issue of Thor, produced by Walt Simonson who has long been considered the best writer/artist to ever helm the book, the pace and dialogue are awful. There are long stretches of clunky exposition or explanations of what's going on in the establishment shot (which can be a regular cityscape) or re-statements of who Thor is and why he is. Editor-in-chief of the time, Jim Shooter, always said that you have to have a continuing story to retain regular readers but that every issue is always someone's first read, so the story couldn't be so dense that they wouldn't be able to get into it. That philosophy is blatantly obvious in reading those old series and makes them kind of painful to get through. That approach was standard in TV for much of its history, as well, and it's only comparatively recently that it has changed such that trying to drop into the middle of things like Breaking Bad would have been difficult for new viewers and it's by far the better experience to watch from the beginning. The way to tell good stories is to let characters grow and develop, especially if they're character-driven stories like almost all superhero comics. You can't have that growth or development if you have to keep explaining what's going on to the new readers. Thankfully, the emergence of limited series in the 80s enabled many writers to escape that Minosian circuit and other series developed with that principle firmly in mind, such as Sandman.

Not a Sandman cover, but one of my favorite McKean images

But the mention of Sandman is important here because it led to the most significant shift in comics since the Code destroyed EC. While the book has always been written by Neil Gaiman and he had a definite path in mind for it, since it was in the DC Universe he had to play along with the superheroes in his backyard for the first year of its publication, although he tried hard to skirt them as much as possible. Once Karen Berger finally convinced DC to let her take books like Sandman and Swamp Thing into their own imprint, Vertigo, they were finally free from the thing that has held back comics in many ways for the past half-century: superheroes.

Don't get me wrong: I love superheroes. I grew up with them. I've read tens of thousands of stories about them. The nostalgic pull is strong whenever someone brings up stuff like Iron Man under David Michelinie or Amazing Spider-Man under Roger Stern in the 80s. I think the Wild Cards series of anthologies, edited and contributed to by George R. R. Martin, are brilliant. But, as with any genre, there are limits to what can be done with them. Despite my history, I haven't read a superhero comic with any regularity since the early 90s. I can't. The stuff bores me to tears because in many ways it's still following the Jim Shooter model. My friend, Curtis, who is the owner of the local shop in Ann Arbor, Vault of Midnight, tried to sell me on a new version of Iron Fist a few years ago and I devoured the first six-issue collection which was about the character coming to grips with his past and the spirituality surrounding the strange city of K'un Lun and what it meant for him to hold the power that he acquired. I was like: "Yeah. This is the shit!" It was thoughtful, but retained enough touches to Chinese mythology and 60s-era kung fu films to have just a bit of camp to lighten it at the right points. Plus, having practiced martial arts for many years, I was on the same page with the concept of trying to express oneself physically and conform to the art as laid down by those before you. I was totally geeked. And then I picked up issue #7... and it was Villain-of-the-month again. Bzzzt! Thank you for playing! Lovely parting gifts, etc.

Gothic #1 by me and Kevin Leen, cover by Guy Davis

When we started the studio in the early 90s, it was with the same idea that so many other comics companies have begun: do it differently and better than the big guys. Almost by default, that meant no superheroes. If you wanted superheroes, you knew where to go. Dark Horse didn't do them (except for one brief excursion around that time that I actually kind of enjoyed) because they wanted to avoid competing directly with Marvel and DC and they frequently stated that they thought the concept was more than played out. Image started around that time with the very brash and public announcement that they were going to do things differently from the Big Two. What they produced at the time was utterly similar and essentially the same stuff that all of them had been doing for Marvel with different names. Alan Moore and Frank Miller had shown what superheroes could be taken to in the mid-80s and that limit had pretty much been set. Trying to keep going after that wasn't interesting to me nor was it to many readers who really wanted to read good stories. Fifth Panel Comics produced creator-owned material, though, so amongst our early producers were people that did their hero-of-the-moment stuff but they soon gave up and left. The small core that remained continued with the idea that the medium could only really be advanced with good stories that had little to do with bright costumes and stopping bank robbers or alien invasions.

I read very few comics these days and the closest I come to superheroes is Kurt Busiek's Astro City, which is essentially Busiek using the world he'd created as a kid to convey stories about the human condition. The facade is "superhero" but the stories are very human. Otherwise, ironically, I actually read a lot of Image output as they decided somewhere along the way that most of their stuff was played out, as well. Most of the original creators had moved on and they've attracted a stable of artists and writers that produce good stuff from many different genres, like Greg Rucka's Lazarus. But I still have a deep attachment to the medium as I tend to think of stories in a cinematic fashion (comics being far closer to film than prose.) When I pitched the idea of Coding Time to Ghostwoods, I did so with the idea of a film called The Machinist firmly in mind and I wrote it in that fashion. I could see the panel transitions in my head. I still have a ton of stories for Fifth Panel that never saw the light of day (or the black of night) and I'd still like to see them published somewhere. My friend, Margot, suggested to me a few years back that I try to convert them to prose. It's something I considered a few times but always abandoned because, again, of the chasm between the two media. There are tricks that you can perform with comics that are very difficult, if not impossible, with prose. When you can let the artwork tell one half of the story and can tell a conjoined but disparate story at the same time via captions, that's a technique that's not feasible in prose and that wouldn't be easy to do in film, either. But comics can make it happen because your reader proceeds at his pace, not the film's which gives more time for reflection and understanding. If you have eye-catching art to go with it, so much the better.

So, yeah. That (and so many, many more details) is what I get from comics/what they mean to me/why they still hang over me even though my connection to them is fairly tenuous these days. My creative outlook is shaped by them and always will be. I analyze plot and story of films through the glass of comics in many ways (noting that Snowpiercer worked well as a comic but not very well as a film, for example.) I think it's a powerful medium that doesn't get a lot of the respect that it deserves because it's tied to the shadow of the cape and cowl, despite the billions earned by Marvel's increasingly Bay-like films, which are still regularly trivialized as "summer blockbusters" from an artistic standpoint and deservedly so in most cases. But there are still gems to find. I'd like to think that one or two of them are still in my head.

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