Tuesday, July 24, 2007

1990s part four

Well, San Diego is coming up, so I'd better knock out the remaining two installments of the 1990s series this week while it's still quiet out there. Here's part four.

In the summer of 1993, I finally got my driver's license on my third try. (My English teacher's wife administered it, and she told me that, as I had just barely passed, I should probably avoid driving for a while. Naturally, I ignored this advice.) With my license came an increase in allowance for gas--I was driving a 1974 Ford pickup, and it was a real guzzler. (I hated that truck. We used to express this hatred by hitting it with pieces of PVC pipe--my father is a plumber, you see.) I also started doing more chores around the house, like all the laundry for the male members of the family (Mom wouldn't let me touch her clothes). So I had more spending money in general. But this money was not going exclusively towards comics anymore. My parents gave me a CD player a few months before I got my license, and I was buying a lot of CDs--probably a new one every other week. I was also buying a lot of t-shirts with band logos on them. By my senior year, I was also taking in a lot of movies and going out to dinner on the weekends with my friends. There was still money left over for comics, but I wasn't spending every last cent on them anymore.

One victim of this lifestyle change was Super Giant Comics. In 1993 (I think), the Charlotte-based chain Heroes Aren't Hard to Find (sponsors of the convention, IIRC) moved into Westgate Mall in Spartanburg. The store was cramped and lacked the selection and warm customer service of Super Giant. In fact, I think these were the most stereotypically "Comic Book Guy"-type employees I've ever had to deal with in 20 years of going to comics specialty shops. But it was convenient, man. It's hard to believe now, but the mall was much more central to my life back in high school. It was the home of Camelot Music, which was the best record store in town at the time (which, admittedly, isn't such a great honor). There was also the food court and...uh...I think my cousin worked at a kiosk, so we would occasionally stop by and talk to him. So I abandoned my pull list at Super Giant and moved over to Heroes.

As always, my buying habits were in flux. Valiant Comics had opened my eyes to reading comics for the story, but I was still interested in the art as well. Instead of the Image guys, however, I was gravitating towards Silver and Bronze Age favorites. I was re-reading my father's SA collection and buying back issues of Walt Simonson's Thor and John Byrne's Fantastic Four. I was also buying more titles from a more diverse array of publishers. Despite the hypocrisy of the Image founders, I was still attracted to the concept of creator-owned comics. So I made an effort to read more of these books, which were in a sort of golden age during the mid-90s. Dark Horse launched the Legend imprint, which featured a number of artists who I had always liked--Byrne, Mike Mignola, and Art Adams in particular. (I also picked up Frank Miller's second Sin City miniseries, and liked it fine, but Miller had never been a personal favorite prior to this point.) Malibu followed up with their own creator-owned imprint, Bravura, which featured adolescent Hyacinth favorites like Simonson, Gil Kane, and Jim Starlin. Not all these comics were great--the Bravura stuff, aside from Kane and Steven Grant's Edge, was pretty mediocre, I thought. But they were mostly non-superhero comics, which represented a sharp break from my normal adolescent buying habits.

I had not completely abandoned the superheroes, though. Having accepted the idea that comics need not feature art with lots of tiny little lines, big guns, and questionable anatomy, I was in a state of mind which allowed me to sample some DC comics. In retrospect, I don't see much of a pattern to the comics I bought--I think I was getting the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, the Ostrander/Mandrake Spectre, and Starman. The only one of these comics I can remember anything about is The Spectre, which was good and weird. Okay, actually I can remember that I liked Tony Harris' art back then--what the hell has happened since then? At what point did fumetti become his major influence? ...Anyway, I bought these DC comics, but I wasn't really a DC fanboy or anything. At this point, I was probably more of a Valiant fanboy than anything.

That was changing, though. I was still reading a lot of Valiant books, but they were starting to lose their luster. The line was expanding at an alarming rate, and the quality seemed to be declining a bit. Valiant certainly was improving its star quality--I appreciated the addition of creators like Jon Ostrander, Bart Sears and Joe Quesada. Valiant was also doing a better job of promoting in-house talent as superstar artists, but I wasn't so quick to accept them; I thought Bernard Chang was okay, but Sean Chen wasn't really to my tastes. The real problem was the avalanche of crappy-looking spinoffs and relaunches. Rai and the Future Force, Geomancer, Armorines--these all looked like absolute hackwork. Even titles with creators I liked, such as Turok or Ninjak, really weren't doing anything for me.

It probably didn't help that there was an absolute glut of superhero universes, c. 1993-4. In addition to Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Image, there was also Jim Shooter's Defiant, Dark Horse's Comics Greatest World and Malibu's Ultraverse. I actually bought a few of the CGW books, but they never really hooked me. I was opposed to the Ultraverse entirely from the very beginning. I think I saw it as a direct challenge to Valiant, which I still felt a great deal of loyalty towards. But I also just thought the characters looked generic and uninspired. I wasn't into a lot of the creators, either--I regarded some as okay but boring, some as burnouts, and many as outright hacks. The entire line had a cheesy veneer as well. More than anything, the Ultraverse reminded me of the terrible independent comics which took up valuable space in the old drug store spinner rack--drek published Now Comics, Comico*, and (worst of all) Continuity. I never even considered buying anything from the Ultraverse imprint.

I read plenty of other crap, though; I was buying nearly every Star Wars adaptation Dark Horse produced. Like most boys my age, I had loved the Star Wars movies. Unlike most boys, I was an obsessive collector of the toys (at least the action figures--the vehicles were of secondary importance to me). When the new novels started appearing in the early 90s, I gobbled them up as soon as they came out. Naturally, I was just as eager to buy the new comics; however, I was never especially fond of them. If ever I was suckered in by continuity porn, it was with these countless Star Wars comics and novels. I had to read them all, regardless of quality--and the quality was generally quite low on these books.

At the same time, however, I was also making my first tentative steps towards buying comics completely outside the sphere of the Big Six (remember back when you could legitimately speak of a "Big Six?"). Much of this was due to Tom Palmer Jr's Palmer's Picks column, which ran in Wizard. Don't laugh--that column was enormously important in my development as a comics reader. Every month, Palmer examined one particular artist, title, or medium (eg, mini-comics, which I first heard of via Palmer's Picks) which could be described as alternative or underground or whatever. These columns promised a world of mysterious, challenging, adult-oriented comics, NONE OF WHICH WERE SOLD AT HEROES AREN'T HARD TO FIND. This was incredibly frustrating, because I was dying to read stuff like Deadface or THB. One title did eventually show up at Heroes, however--Bone.

I loved Bone. It quickly became my favorite title, making all the other comics I bought (with the possible exception of Hellboy) look pretty fucking shabby by comparison. Bone was actually a very good gateway into the realm of non-spandex, non-licensed comics. I loaned the first TPB to an Image-obsessed friend at the summer art program I mentioned in the last column. As soon as he got a chance, he went to Heroes and bought all the back issues. He was hooked on Bone, this guy who was vociferously defending Marat Mychaels only a few days before.

I also picked up a copy of the first Tales of the Beanworld TPB on a trip to Greenville. I think I bough it at a record store, Manifest Discs and Tapes. I liked Beanworld, but reading it further instilled the notion that I couldn't buy the sort of comics I really wanted in upstate South Carolina. It's ironic that I bought Beanworld at Manifest, since that quickly became my record store of choice. Unlike the mall stores in Spartanburg, Manifest actually sold used CDs; it also carried an exponentially larger stock of new CDs. Once I became a regular Manifest shopper, my CD habit was up to about one disc a week, meaning even less of my money was going towards comics now.

But I didn't completely stop reading mainstream comics until I took a trip to Athens, Georgia in the spring of 1995. I was a couple of months away from graduating, and I was planning on attending the University of Georgia in the fall. (It didn't work out that way, but that's another story.) While visiting Athens, my brother and I chanced upon Bizarro Wuxtry. Our jaws hit the sidewalk when we saw their stock--nothing but Palmer's Picks-type books! It scarcely seemed possible, but here were all those comics which we had longed to read for so long! My brother was actually getting out of comics at the time--I think the only title he was reading every month was Madman--but he desperately wanted to buy some comics by Charles Burns and Dan Clowes. In fact, my brother had bought CDs and tapes by bands he didn't like just for Burns/Clowes cover art.

Tragically, we had no money on us. We quickly found our parents and begged for some charity--I think my father gave us about $10 each to spend. I bought Atomic City Tales #2, Hate #17, and Underwater #1. My brother got Curse of the Molemen and some random issue of Eightball. I have no idea how many times we read those comics, but they're inordinately beat up compared to others in my collection (well, all of them except Underwater--I had no idea what I was getting myself into with that one). We had finally gotten a peak at heaven.

Which made it impossible to go back to purgatory. I didn't return to Heroes Aren't Hard to Find for several years (when I bought all their back issues of Milk and Cheese--I guess their stock improved while I was in college or something). I quit DC/Malibu/Dark Horse/Valiant cold turkey--they just seemed pointless now. I was resolved to only buy alternative/underground/whatever comics from that point forward--which, as a resident of Spartanburg County, pretty much meant that I had quit reading comics. I did find THB #1 at an independent bookstore (it was just sitting on the shelf with other books for reasons I've never ascertained), and I did find a few comics while on a trip to Tampa, but that was pretty much it.

I figured this state of affairs wouldn't last long, since I was going to be moving to the relative metropolis of Columbia for college. Columbia was the home of the original Manifest Discs and Tapes, a store which dwarfed the prodigious Greenville branch. Surely a city with such a fine record store would have an equally fine comic shop, right? At the time I started college, Columbia actually had three or four comics shops. The big one was (and is) Heroes and Dragons--which is the current employer of a rather prominent blogger, if I'm not mistaken. Back in 1995, Heroes and Dragons was located in what I assume was the former home of a Chinese restaurant, right in the middle of the parking lot of the strip mall which housed Manifest. This was an exciting prospect, since I was certain to be visiting Manifest on a regular basis--the only thing more convenient would have been a location in my dormitory. Unfortunately, Manifest was more likely to stock comics I wanted to read than Heroes and Dragons. When I went to Columbia for summer orientation, I stopped in both stores. At Manifest I found issues of Hate, Too Much Coffee Man, and Peepshow. At Heroes and Dragons, I found musty shelves filled with titles I would not deign to read. I was kind of heartbroken.

I must have been the only Manifest shopper buying comics, because soon enough that well was dry. There was a cigar shop/newsstand close to campus that sold a small assortment of Drawn & Quarterly/Fantagraphic titles, but this too was an unreliable source. My response was to quit reading comics, basically. In all honesty, anime was starting to replace comics for me by this point anyway. My brother and I were insatiable anime fiends during my senior year of high school. As soon as I turned 18, I got a membership at Blockbuster Video and we started renting nearly everything they had in stock. What I couldn't find there I bought at Suncoast or Best Buy--when I could afford it. Anime was really overpriced back then--a single episode of Tenchi Muyo ran $20! So I mostly stuck with renting and pirating. I watched a ton of anime all the way through my first two years of college. All our cats were named after anime characters--Ataru, Lum (initially Tenchi until she got pregnant), Ryoko, Genma, and Akane. My 10-year-old cat Lupin is the only surviving of these anime-named felines.

Further crowding out comics was my initiation into the punk subculture. If I have any overwhelming regret from my college years, it's my absurdly rigid devotion to punk. Getting into punk is kind of like joining a cult--you're encouraged to abandon all other cultural affectations. (This might vary from case to case, depending on how seriously you take Maximum Rock and Roll.. Alas, I took it far, far too seriously.) I sold all my non-punk CDs so I could buy terrible, terrible albums by bands like the Mr. T Experience (I wasn't an especially tough punk, you see). This was greatly accelerated when I started DJ-ing a punk radio show on the college station. Almost all my money was going towards CD and record purchases by this time, largely just so I would have new stuff to play on the show. Man, I accumulated some godawful records during this period. Have you ever heard the Angelic Upstarts? They're worse than you could imagine. How about the Automatics? The original Fuel, an emo band from the mid 80s? I bought all these records when I should have been buying Zero Zero. But there was no place to buy Zero Zero, so I bought these records.

Strangely enough, though, I never quit producing my own comics--or, to be more accurate, producing outlines and character designs for comics I never actually produced. All throughout my life, I filled spiral bound notebooks and sketchbooks with fragments of comics and sketches for comic characters, but I hardly ever got around to making actual, full-length comics. Though my production of comics-related drawings and notes were consistent, the nature of these drawings and outlines changed with my tastes. When I was a young teenager, my best friend (who, curiously, didn't actually read comics) and I envisioned an empire we called Electric Comics. In our afterschool art program, we produced a lurid superhero comic called The Night Shadow. My friend Sam plotted and inked, while I scripted and penciled it. Later, when Sam completely lost interest in comics, I created endless teams of mutant heroes much in the vein of Liefeld or Lee. By high school, I was trying to make quirky comics which Tom Palmer Jr. might have found worthy of inclusion in Palmer's Picks--high concept stories about companies which helped celebrities fake their own death; a for-profit college which scammed its students; and many frenzied superhero parodies. By the time of college, my comic-related drawings bore an obvious anime influence. Characters sported shiny purple hair and watery eyes; the plot outlines might have been lifted directly from Tenchi Muyo. I never quit making my own comics (or making plans to make my own comics), even when I wasn't reading them in the 90s. So I guess it's no surprise that I was reading them again by the end of the decade.

The one thing that stands out here is how important Palmer's Picks was in my development as a comics reader. Ironically, that column sowed the seeds for my abandonment of Wizard and the aesthetic it championed (which I was never entirely comfortable with--never much cared for Jim Balent, thanks). I tried picking up Hero's Illustrated (certainly better than Wizard) and I managed to find one issue of The Comics Journal at Barnes & Noble, but I was never able to find it again. I'm a man who thrives on discourse--I wonder to what extent my lapse in comic-reading was due to lack of access to a periodical that spoke to my own developing tastes? I really think I wouldn't have abandoned comics so quickly had the internet been more fully developed in the mid-90s. We have an embarrassment of riches as far as quality new comics, but also in quality comics discourse (even if you have to wade through an awful lot of shit to get to the good stuff). Of course, I wasn't actively on the net until very late in the decade, so the quality of web-based comics discourse is purely academic in my case.

Another thing: I don't know if Bone gets its due as a gateway to better comics. Jeff Smith is enjoying a resurgence in popularity with his recent Shazam mini (still haven't read the last issue, dammit), but I don't hear as many people talking about him as a successor to Dave Sim as an usher to the underground. I don't mean to disparage Smith or Bone, which is a wonderful comic which I enjoy as much now as when I was a teenager who had never heard of Chris Ware. And really, I'm basing my "gateway drug" argument on anecdotal evidence. But still--is there anything remotely like this today? Maybe Scott Pilgrim?

Later this week, certainly before San Diego lurches into action, I'll post the final installment--my return to comics in the late 90s, and why I quit reading them for a second time.

*I know they published a few comics of some merit, but I remember hating the Comico newsstand line. I might be remembering that wrong, though.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The comics industry needs Go-Gurt!

-Via Blogorama, an interesting piece about the difficult balancing act facing comics in the graphic novel era. On the one hand, increased respectability has potential financial benefits (maybe, depending on who you ask). On the other, this higher profile might, in part, reflect the continued disrepute which clings to comics as a medium. The hipster middlebrow types* who shape (or, rather, attempt to shape) public opinion are supernaturally attracted to all things outre. It nourishes them, separates them from the masses. Allows them to carve out an identity for themselves, or (for the less ambitious) to leech onto the current hot movement. Which is to say, don't believe the hype. The popularity of Naruto is much more important than Time's opinion of Fun Home.

Anyway, here's the passage that caught my eye:

But some argue “Maus” was followed by a greater work. In early 1987, “Watchmen” concluded its 12-issue run, delivering an epic murder mystery, Cold War melodrama and probing, skeptical examination of superhero-worship.

Now, look. This guy Peter Rowe isn't just talking out of his ass; he actually has a quote from Tom Spurgeon, which is a pretty good way of establishing some modicum of credibility. But really, who exactly is it that thinks Watchmen is a "greater work" than Maus? I mean, besides those folks whose biggest gripe against Watchmen is the lack of toys?** I like Watchmen just fine--it's not Moore's best work, but it's a great comic. But seriously now--better than Maus? I'm not sure From Hell is better than Maus.

*The highbrow (by which I mean "academic") types are also reading comics, but either (a) purely for their own enjoyment, or (b) in the service of obscure projects which hold no pretense in shaping public reading habits. For instance, a couple of years ago my wife sat through a nearly incomprehensible presentation on depictions of the apocalypse in popular culture; said presentation drew heavily from Watchmen (hey!) and some manga she didn't recognize (and which I could not identify from her description). In case you weren't aware, most academics are more interested in description than prescription, which explains the vitality of their role in current popular discourse. In fact, practitioners of any applied sub-discipline are often looked upon with some mixture of animosity and amusement by those who work in the purely theoretical mainstream of the field. At least that's been the behavior I've observed.

**I've actually seen people who take great personal offense at Alan Moore's refusal to sign off on Watchmen toys, as if Moore is being unconscionably selfish. I'm not sure what to say to these people--I'm not sure we even speak the same language.

-I'll have another installment of the ever-popular 90s series tomorrow, but before that I'd like to touch on one subject I neglected last week. As I've already mentioned, part of the Image Myth is that the only reason these comics sold was rampant, foolhardy speculation. Of course, any fool could tell you that Spawn and Youngblood probably wouldn't have sold around a million each without the support of speculators. But again, this ignores the question of how these books became so popular in the first place. Speculators were attracted to popular artists. They might have used Wizard (or that other monthly price guide, and I don't mean Overstreet--anyone else remember its name?) as crib notes, of course, but Wizard didn't spin this hype out of thin air. There was a massive popular demand for comics drawn by the Image founders, particularly Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld. These were juvenile comics, to be certain, but many (perhaps most) of the readers were literally juvenile.

When she was publicizing her fill-in issues of Teen Titans, Gail Simone mentioned that her teenage son expressed an uncharacteristic interest once he saw the art--which, of course, was supplied by Rob Liefeld. Simone concluded that there was something about Liefeld's art that attracts adolescent boys. I totally agree, and would mention McFarlane and Lee in the same breath. But as of 2007, Marvel and DC are in no position to publish art so blatantly juvenile. Lee has maintained his popularity, but he was always the most grounded in realism of the three; I think people mistake his excessive linework for detail. Perhaps more important, Jim Lee represents the acceptable Image alumnus. He's a socially-acceptable conduit for all the accumulated Image nostalgia. True, Marvel occasionally publishes comics featuring art by Liefeld or Marc Silvestri, but their contributions in the last few years have been limited to cover art or hermetically sealed miniseries with no impact on any other books. Even then, normally art-agnostic message boarders will vociferously denounce their reappearance in the mainstream (such as it is), as though their very presence will somehow resurrect the "dark ages" of the 90s. You know, back when kids actually read comics.

I'm not trying to defend the Image founders on aesthetic grounds, but on commercial grounds. They were enormously popular; they attracted a wider audience than Grant Morrison or Alex Ross ever dreamed of. And, sadly, most of that audience is apparently not reading comics anymore. At least that's the impression one gets when reading message boards or blogs, where many posters don't think twice about admitting their love of Darkhawk (Darkhawk!), but swear up and down that they never liked Rob Liefeld. In fact, they never even read X-Force #1, no siree.

Everyone is in favor of Marvel and DC publishing comics geared towards juvenile readers, and many adult readers seem to particularly enjoy these comics. They present versions of characters which hearken back to the readers' childhoods, after all--the Avengers before Bendis! Dick Grayson is Robin! and so on. The art is usually clear, competent, and maybe a bit plain--an aesthetic somewhere between Bruce Timm and Curt Swan, ideally. Yes, it's no wonder these comics are so popular with adult readers. But are children (or their parents, grandparents, etc.) buying them? Certainly not in comics stores, no. Maybe in book stores? We really don't know, but when I'm in Barnes & Noble, I certainly see a lot more kids reading manga than Marvel Adventures: Avengers. And it's not something good like Drifting Classroom, either--it's stuff that I just can't get into as a 30-year-old man, for whatever reason. But then again, it's hard to produce comics for children that aren't dull as dishwater, transparently pandering, or secretly intended for adults. It takes a certain mindset--not exactly naiveté, but a real disingenuousness. Jack Kirby had this quality, and so did Harvey Kurtzman. But then again, so did a lot of other, lesser talents.

Look, let's say you missed lunch and were starving, and the only thing available to eat was Go-Gurt (or whatever that yogurt-in-a-tube is called). Realistically, what can you expect from this tube of green goo? It's not made for you. It will sell regardless of what you think about it, in fact. If tubular dairy sludge were the only food available, I would be the first one to complain. I'd much rather snack on something like wasabi peas. But I don't think we should try to feed kids a less-pungent version of wasabi peas--they want their Go-Gurt. Do you think the manufacturer of Go-Gurt eats that shit? Do you think that the average 11-year old Go-Gurt fiend grows up to eat nothing but squeezable foodstuffs? Why don't we let the kids have their Go-Gurt, for Chrissakes?

-So anyway, I'm thinking about reading some of the "classic" work by various prominent Image guys for the first time since puberty. I rarely read any reviews of this material which seeks to do anything more ambitious than ridicule it. Hey, that might be all that it deserves, but I'd like to find out first-hand. If I follow through with this impulse, I think I'll start with the works of Rob Liefeld--aside from McFarlane, he seems like the Image founder with the most fully-developed identity as a writer/artist/creator. I'm not interested so much in evaluating the quality of these comics from an adult (or semi-adult) point of view--I'm more concerned with trying to figure out why I liked these comics so much when I was 15. So yeah, maybe I'll work on that once I'm done with my 1990s reminisces.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

1990s part three

Okay, here we go--part three.

As I've implied in the previous two entries, I was always the sort of fan who followed my favorite artists from title to title. In fact, I can't deny that Todd McFarlane's art on Amazing Spider-Man was a major contributing factor to my increased interest in comics during late pre-pubescence. It was really appealing to an 11 year old boy--adolescent-friendly displays of crosshatching and anatomy. Plus there was almost an issue of ownership involved. Other hot artists seemed more established; they had fans long before I ever heard of them. Todd McFarlane had drawn other comics before Amazing Spider-Man #301 (the first issue of his run which I read), but I wasn't aware of him being a fan favorite or anything close. I'd certainly never heard of him. So McFarlane kind of became "my" artist, emblematic of my superior, distinct taste in comics. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that he was such a popular artist; I took it as validation of my tastes.

Which brings us to Wizard. The popular discourse surrounding Wizard is that it lowered the standards at Marvel (and, to a lesser extent, DC) by hyping flashy "hot artists" over quality craftsmanship or established intellectual properties. As a result, Marvel (and to a much lesser extent DC) adopted a house style which emphasized bad crosshatching, nondescriptive details, and ridiculous costume design. Readers didn't necessarily want this, but Wizard told them they did. And so the industry collapsed, or something like that.

Maybe that's true in a macro sense, but it doesn't reflect my personal history with Wizard. I loved Wizard from the moment I laid eyes on it, but Gareb Shamus didn't brainwash me--he pandered to me. Wizard had everything I wanted from a comics magazine, c. 1991: an emphasis on artists whose work I enjoyed; a feature for aspiring comic book artists; an irreverent attitude; and the added bonus of a price guide! How could I not love Wizard? Best of all, Wizard had kind of a clubhouse mentality; it told its young readers that they belonged, encouraging them to revel in their nerdliness. It was a powerful, hopeful message for young nerds like myself.

(Brief foray back into the present: I've discussed Wizard's growing irrelevance in the face of the internet in the past, but I'd never considered the issue of group membership until now. These days, no fanboy need feel isolated in his nerdishness; there are plenty of like-minded individuals to commiserate, argue, and barter with on the internet. But in the 90s, back when the comics-related internet was still in its infancy, Wizard was a reassuring presence for those who did not have a bunch of comics-reading friends.)

This is not to say Wizard was devoid of hype; from the very beginning, it was filled to the brim with wild-eyed exhortations about the awesomeness of comics. By which I mean superhero comics. By which I mean Marvel superhero comics. This was right up my alley, since I had almost no interest in DC at this time. I still liked the characters (some of them, at least), but I thought the actual comics were incredibly dull. Of course I wasn't actually reading the comics, so what I really thought was that DC's art was incredibly dull. Marvel's most popular artists used lots of little lines and contorted their characters' bodies into improbable positions. Even a relatively mundane Marvel artist like Ron Lim brought a weird kineticism utterly lacking in the DC comics I flipped through. Unlike Comics Scene, Wizard didn't waste my time telling me what Jerry Ordway was up to--it gave me more McFarlane, Liefeld, and Lee. On the other hand, Wizard had waaaaay more credibility than Marvel Age, which I had previously relied on as a serious news source. When Marvel Age told me that Todd McFarlane was the best artist working in comics, I recognized it as nothing more than the Marvel company line. But when Wizard fawned over my favorite artists, it seemed to justify my opinions. As for the other publications (Comic Buyer's Guide, Amazing Heroes), my shop either didn't carry them or I didn't bother picking them up. Given my lifelong interest in discourse (even when I didn't know what discourse was), I'm guessing it was the former.

My interest in the art side of comics must have been on the rise during this period, because I started reading X-Men comics just because they featured the art of Jim Lee, While Portacio, and Rob Liefeld. I was familiar with all three artists long before they started working on the mutant titles. I think the first published work I'd read by Liefeld was Amazing Spider-Man Annual #23, but I'm not sure. I immediately noted his similarities to McFarlane and Art Adams (who probably would have been my favorite c. 1985 if I were about five years older). I was excited to learn (via Marvel Age!) that he'd be working on New Mutants, but for whatever reason I never actually bought those comics. I did, however, start buying Uncanny X-Men because of Jim Lee's art. I had no idea what was going on, and I had no real affection for any of the characters. Nevertheless, I dug Lee's highly rendered style enough to add UXM to my pull list. Similarly, I started buying X-Factor when Whilce Portacio took over as the regular penciller. Naturally, I followed Portacio to Uncanny and Lee to the relaunched, no adjective X-Men. My brother started buying X-Force, so I was reading that as well. Hell, I even picked up the David/Stroman X-Factor.

So, it should come as no surprise that I was pumped for Image. I don't remember feeling any regret that these artists wouldn't be working on Marvel's intellectual properties any longer; after all, I was only reading the X-books because of the creative teams, not because I liked the characters. And McFarlane had already left the relaunched Spider-Man by that point. The rest of the Image founders were of little interest to me--I never read Guardians of the Galaxy, Marc Silvestri quit Uncanny X-Men long before I started reading it (and I sure as shit wasn't going to read a solo Wolverine comic, which Silvestri had been drawing immediately prior to the launch of Image), and I still thought Erik Larsen was a hack. Still, my brother and I were buying every single Image comic for those first few months.

This is where I start wondering how much the Wizard hype machine was affecting our purchases. We quit buying all our Marvel comics just to keep up with the ever-expanding Image comics line. Still, I wasn't as enthusiastic about these comics as I had been about the Marvel comics these creators had left. As I've mentioned before (can't find the link, sorry), I think the Image creators were too quick to focus on building mysterious and complex universes for their characters, when they should have been worried about producing readable comics. The lack of experienced writers at Image was a problem, but I think the bad influence of mid-80s Chris Claremont was a factor as well. In their rush to infuse their comics with intrigue and hints of backstory, Liefeld, Lee, and Silvestri neglected the importance of creating compelling characters and stories. (I think Portacio probably would have fallen into this habit as well if Wetworks had ever come out.)

At the same time, I think I was just growing out of the Image founders' style. I was already growing less enamored with McFarlane during his no-adjective Spider-Man run. Obviously the writing was bad, but I was starting to notice the flaws in his art as well (which probably explains my gravitation toward Jim Lee, despite his mutant subject matter). I bought about the first 18 or so issues of Spawn, but I never really got into it. I thought it was an ass kind of comic; muddy, bleak-yet-boring, lacking in interesting characters, and dripping with a cheesy goth-industrial aesthetic which (unbeknownst to me at the time) would become my least-favorite deign motif in the years to come. Plus the writing was idiotic.

Another factor working against Image was the incredible lateness of its books. I bought the first issues of Larry Stroman's Tribe and Dale Keown's Pitt, but none of the subsequent ones because they were so incredibly late. In fact, Image never published another issue of Tribe. WildCATS was slow in coming out. Larsen lost what little good will he had with me (mostly by virtue of his association with Lee, McFarlane, et al) by being so late on Savage Dragon #2. (To be fair, he had a good excuse--his house burned down.) Image just never built up enough momentum to inspire loyalty from me, so I had no regrets about leaving it behind.

Finally, and perhaps most damaging, was my impression that the Image founders weren't really interested in making comics. The sudden glut in work-for-hire comics published by Image really turned me off. I kind of bought into all the talk of creators' rights which the Image founders were espousing, so I was shocked and a little outraged when Liefeld and Lee started hiring other creators to work on their own intellectual properties. Their insistence on publishing so many titles as to necessitate work-for-hire freelancers was maybe even more off-putting--I still didn't know what Youngblood and WildCATS were all about. Why the hell did I need Brigade and Stormwatch? (Answer: I didn't. But I bought the first couple of issues anyway.) And why did Liefeld and Lee seem more concerned about developing toy lines and cartoons than in producing actual comics?

Still, I didn't go back to Marvel. Instead, I fell for more Wizard hype: while on vacation, my brother and I bought all the issues in Valiant's Unity crossover. I wasn't totally unfamiliar with Valiant before reading Unity. My sole triumph as a half-assed comics speculator was in buying and preserving Harbinger #1, which peaked in value at $100 according to Wizard. (I later realized that I would have been hard-pressed to find someone who would have paid me a hundred bucks for that comic.) But Valiant seemed to have the same problems as DC--boring art. I wasn't interested.

What drew me into Unity was the art of Barry Windsor-Smith. I was never a huge fan (partly because he seemed to be working on X-books when I was younger), but I always appreciated his work. For whatever reason, I decided to pick up Archer and Armstrong while at the beach. The art, as expected, was good, but I was absolutely blown away by the writing. Now, I'm not saying that Valiant's comics have held up well, but I loved those comics when I was 15. It's strange--I've read interviews with Jim Shooter in which he claims that he was making up everything on the fly, and conventional wisdom has it that universe-building is a sure way to alienate the reader (it certainly was for me as far as Image went). Despite all that, I totally bought into the Valiant Universe. I loved the themes of prophesy and hidden history. For those who don't know/remember, a handful of Valiant titles took place in the far future, but they were all united (get it?) in this crossover. But there was still a great deal of mystery in how we got from the present to the future. It sounds pretty insufferable today, but it totally worked for me at the time.

Valiant isn't warmly remembered in 2007, but I found these comics absolutely revolutionary in 1992. In the past, I had read comics for the characters or for the art. For the first time in my life, I was reading them for the writing. Strangely, though, I also grew to appreciate the level of craft in Valiant Comics' art. Nobody's going to confuse Bob Hall with John Buscema, but the quality of the anatomy, storytelling, and facial expression was light years beyond the showier art being produced at Image (or Marvel, for that matter).

I'm not sure when I completely swore off Image comics. I bought the Valiant-produced issues of Deathmate, but not the Image ones. The last Image comic I can specifically remember buying is the Cyberforce one-shot written and drawn by Walt Simonson--which might be the only Cyberforce comic I ever bought. That was somewhere around September of 1993. I spent about half of the summer of 1994 in a summer art school, and most of my friends there were also into comics. I know that, by then, I was constantly deriding Image (to the point of annoyance for at least one of my friends). But then again, my reading habits had completely changed by then--a subject I'll cover more in the next, penultimate installment.

A few points I want to emphasize here. The comics I've discussed in this entry, particularly those associated with Rob Liefeld, are today remembered as extraordinarily bad. However, they were also extraordinarily popular. It's a (false) dichotomy which seems to haunt those covering comics in the 21st century. As a result, I think, we've seen the establishment of a sort of Image Myth. To wit: nobody actually liked these comics--they only sold because of hype (especially via Wizard), speculation, or some combination of the two. However, I would have bought these comics even without the massive storm of publicity surrounding them. I was interested in Image before it was Image, from the moment I first heard that Rob Liefeld was planning to produce an independent comic. I was ultimately unsatisfied with Image's comics, but I don't think this was due to a lack of iconic intellectual properties or the bursting of the speculator bubble--it was due to a combination of poor comics, incredible lateness, my maturing tastes, and increasingly evident aspirations of mogulhood on the part of the founders. If the founders had managed to produce comics as good (in a relative, not absolute, sense) as the ones they had made for Marvel, I probably would have stuck with Image for a little longer--at least six months.

Second, it's really amazing how quickly I dropped all interest in the Big Two. Once my favorite artists left, I had very limited interest in what Marvel was doing. My brother and I bought all the issues of the X-Cutioner's Song crossover (partly because I liked a lot of the artists), but we were gone after that. To me, Marvel and DC were totally irrelevant in the face of Image and Valiant. In retrospect, I probably would have liked a lot of what DC was doing at the time, given my interest in Valiant. In fact, I started reading a lot more DC comics around the time I lost interest in Valiant.

Next: Why I quit reading comics for the first time in my life. It's not what you think.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nu DC?

-The 90s series returns tomorrow. I still haven't dug through my old comics, which I really need to do to jog my memory on some of this stuff. On the other hand, my character is at level 16 on Oblivion now. I'm still compiling links related to all this, BTW, so keep me informed of any posts you have made on the subject.

-I've been critical of DC in the past, many times in fact. I always feel a little self-conscious about it, as though I need to include some criticism of Marvel to balance things out. I hate Big Two partisanship. It's one of the three or four worst phenomena of the comics-related internet (along with, off the top of my head, (1) taking aim at easy targets in a glib/facile way, (2) ignoring the importance of art in comics, and (3) passing off personal/professional vendettas as thoughtful commentary; faithful readers will note that I've probably been guilty of at least two of these offenses, maybe more).

But man, DC is really fucking up right now, isn't it? I mean, it's on multiple levels; it's both a business and creative problem. By now most of you have heard the news that the dude who was doing the Countdown blog has called it quits, and is actually no longer reading the series. Nobody seems to like Countdown. And yet, take a look at DC's solicitations: tons and tons of miniseries spinning off from Countdown. Presumably these were all commissioned and scheduled before the sales figures started rolling in, but still--DC is flooding the market with a bunch of series nobody wants. If the sales on the core title are slipping fast, what can we expect for the multitude of spinoffs? This is especially dire if one considers the potential effect on sales generated by the poor quality of World War III (though, to be fair, I've heard some people say they actually enjoyed WWIII--never underestimate the allure of continuity porn, I guess).

Shockingly, the sales figures paint an even bleaker picture. (Bleaker still if one considers how much Marvel and DC still dominate the charts, but let's stick to one depressing conundrum at a time for right now.) You know, it wasn't that long ago that DC was running neck and neck with Marvel, right? Around the time of Infinite Crisis and the early months of One Year Later, right? Now they appear to be hopelessly behind.

Put it all together: the critical reception to Countdown, the glut of Countdown tie-ins on the horizon, and the declining sales figures. There's no way to look at these figures and not question the effect on DC as a brand. DC is not giving fans (of any stripe, really) what they want. Their line-wide identity is tied into a loser of a maxi-series; many of their highest profile books are perpetually late, leading to clumsy/destructive schedule-juggling; their biggest intellectual properties are selling fewer books than Moon Knight. To his credit, Dan DiDio is not so incompetent as to maintain the disastrous status quo. But does anyone expect Waid on Flash and McDuffie on Justice League to turn things around? Shit, Justice League is DC's only consistent, monthly bestseller; if anything, Meltzer's imminent departure will see sales drop by a significant amount.

And that's the interesting part--Meltzer's JLA is quite possibly less popular than Countdown among the internet cognoscenti, but it's a spectacular hit by the standards of the contemporary Direct Market. Clearly, the comic-reading public is still enamored with DC's intellectual properties. I'm not sure what makes Justice League better than any other title featuring Batman, Wonder Woman, et al, but a lot of people obviously feel that way. There must be something about the current DCU that's turning people off in droves; thus, it's logical to examine JLA in order to figure out what it's doing differently. Some possibilites:

The creative team: Meltzer might be that much more popular than Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, and Grant Morrison. I'd be sort of surprised if this were true, but who knows. Maybe the infrequency of Meltzer's comic work has created demand, whereas one can buy comics by Johns, Waid, and Morrison every month (or practically every month, in the last case). I seriously doubt that Ed Benes can be credited for the massive sales. I'm not saying he doesn't have fans; I'm just saying that he doesn't have that many fans.

The characters: There's something very attractive about all-star teams, and the Justice League probably has the most mystique of all such super-teams. Why, then, did the previous volume not sell as well? I think readers had come to view the title as secondary. The rotating creative teams suggested an endless parade of inventory stories--which, as best I can tell, cuts pretty close to the truth. JLA didn't seem to matter, and today's superhero fans desperately want their comics to matter (not in a Denny O'Neill sense--more in a Marv Wolfman sense). So the relaunched Justice League was essentially filling pent-up demand for a high profile comic featuring the Justice League, much as Grant Morrison's JLA did a decade ago.

The stories: I think most fans are aware that comics are not Brad Meltzer's day job. Thus, there's an expectation that his comics won't be contorted to fit into the crossover du jour. (I'm not saying this actually reflected reality so much as fan perception. Maybe.) At the same time, the centrality of Identity Crisis to the current DCU may have led readers to expect Serious Shit to go down in Justice League. And yet this Serious Shit would not be incomprehensible without reading of seventeen related mini series and crossovers. (Again, we're talking perception here.)

In any event, DC really looks to be in some Serious Shit of its own. This is potentially more than a short term problem--DC is in danger of turning off readers longterm. Think Marvel c. 1993. Many (most?) of these readers will gravitate to Marvel for the time being, perhaps returning when their confidence in DC has been restored. A precious few will graduate to more challenging fare. The rest, sadly, will probably give up comics altogether. Regardless of what you think about Brad Meltzer, Dan DiDio, or corporate comics culture in general, the Direct Market needs those readers. One day the comics industry will outgrow the hobby shop market, but who knows how far away that day is? In the meantime, most comics shops depend upon the dude reading Justice League so they can take a chance on Sammy the Mouse. What's more, DC provides a crucial bridge between spandex and literary/art comics, via the Vertigo imprint. (In the future, it might provide a bridge between manga aimed at a juvenile audience and literary/art comics, via the Minx imprint.) If you're reading this, chances are that you need DC, at least for a little while longer, whether you like it or not.

This is why so many of us were floored at the Rich Johnston column suggesting DiDio is in no immediate danger of being canned. One would think that the latest sales figures might change this, but maybe DiDio is the Matt Millen of comics. DC really, really, badly, really needs a complete overhaul. They have to do something to reestablish confidence in the comics they publish, especially since Countdown--the center of their publishing plans for the foreseeable future--seems to be lurching toward unmitigated disaster territory. Replacing DiDio would be a good start, but DC really needs an infusion of new talent with fresh perspectives on its intellectual properties.

Anyone remember a few years ago when Mark Millar was blathering about having a plan to "save" DC? I remember laughing at him at the time--Infinite Crisis and OYL suggested that DC already had a plan. Sales and buzz were both on the incline; the future looked bright. Now I'm not sure that DiDio and the DC brain trust ever really had a plan. Infinite Crisis featured a lot of multiverse junk and it was a hit. So, rather than using it as a launching pad for a wave of compelling, novel approaches to its characters, DC editorial has instead given us all-multiverse, all the time--and it's mostly crap. 52 featured an atypical format and a wide cast of characters; again, DC's editors have copied these surface elements without replicating the true appeal of the original, and again the result is garbage. 2005 was a year of innovation for DC (at least by its standards); 2007 has been a year of imitation. It would be a hard pill for DC partisans to swallow, but it might be time to bring in Millar and see what he has to say. It couldn't be any worse than what's happening right now.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Meta-stuff re: my 1990s series

Before getting into part 3, there's a couple of things I should mention. First, Johnny Bacardi points out that he did a similar post for the 1960s a couple of years ago. I strongly recommend checking it out, especially if you've been enjoying this series. What strikes me as particularly interesting is the sheer number of outlets where one could buy comics in Horse Cave, KY, (which is half the size of my podunk home town) in the 1960s. If you prefer, compare the population of Hart County, KY (17,000+) to Spartanburg County, SC (about a quarter million). There were way more people in my neck of the woods, but way fewer places to buy comics in the 80s. And this is well before the Direct Market had completely supplanted the newsstand. In Woodruff (where I technically grew up), there were maybe five places where one could buy new comics, c. 1984--three drug stores and one or two gas stations. (At least one grocery store also sold those three packs of Whitman comics, which included such timely material as Lost In Space.) By 1990, that had dwindled to two pharmacies, one of which mysteriously carried comics which were about a month old. Of course, you could still buy Archie anywhere.

Also, ADD notes that this is threatening to become a meme. That would be great, actually; it was partly my intention to encourage people to talk more about their experiences as a reader/consumer of comics. In part one, I referred to this project as an attempt to apply the New Social History to the history of comics. I was partly joking, but I think there is some value in redefining what constitutes comics history. Most of the existing history of the industry is what historians call "top-down," focusing on the major publishers and creators. That's obviously valuable, important, and fascinating stuff, but it's not the whole story. We should also consider the industry from the perspective of the reader and the retailer. And hell, the printers too--I know I'm interested in changes to the technology of producing comics over the years.* I'm partly trying to correct this imbalance in this series of reminisces.

Having said that, the line between the New Social History of Comics and masturbatory nostalgia is finer than one might like. I've tried to limit my recollections to subjects which might be of interest to a broader audience, or which might help answer larger questions about the industry in the 1990s. I'm trying to avoid solipsism, but something of this nature will almost always involve some personal indulgences. Hopefully I've kept these to a minimum.

I mention this because, ideally, social history includes a range of experiences. What I've been doing here is sort of a microhistory (or maybe a nanohistory) of comics readership in the 90s. One of the aims of the New Social History was to take all these microhistories and synthesize them into a master narrative of the subject at hand. (For instance, one would be able to write a more complete and truthful version of the history of labor if (s)he could draw upon dozens of microhistories related to labor in the United States--or the world, I guess, if the hypothetical historian was ambitious enough.) Of course, nobody really believes this is possible anymore; in fact, synthetic histories are sort of out of vogue right now.** Truth be told, I'm really too much of a postie to expect a multitude of microhistories to cohere into a functional meta-narrative. On the other hand, I'm enough of a contrarian to think it's worth trying in this case.

So what I'm basically saying is that I'd like to see more people try writing these things, and see if we can't suss out some interesting conclusions about the nature of reading and buying comics in the 90s (or any earlier decade, for that matter). I linked to Johnny B's post above, but you might also check out similar thoughts by ADD and history buddy Todd C. Murry's comment from yesterday's post. If you make a post of this type on your blog, send the link my way. I'll try to start compiling this stuff in the next day or so.

*We need a David Montgomery for the comics industry, basically.

**In reality, the issue of synthesis in contemporary historiography is far more complicated, but I've indulged in too much shop talk here already.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

1990s Part Two

Before we get started on the 1990s stuff, there's a major news story which needs to be publicized as much as possible. I know I toss around the phrase "holy fuck" or words to that effect pretty often. I probably shouldn't, because it leaves me with fewer options to accurately convey my excitement in times like these: Beanworld is apparently on its way back. Wow. For those of you unfamiliar with Beanworld, hopefully this means the original volumes will be headed back into print. Maybe I'll re-read them all this weekend. (Via Heidi MacDonald, BTW)

Dick Hyacinth's 90s Part II

I probably need to delve into the history of the comics shop I frequented c. 1988-93. Super Giant Comics was a chain store (remember when comic shop chains were typical?), with the original shop located in either Hickory or Asheville, NC. Eventually the chain made its way over the border, opening a store in my hometown (more or less) of Spartanburg, SC. Their original location was in an obscurely located strip mall, about a mile from anything resembling a vibrant commercial district. Our patronage of the store coincided with its move to a much more convenient location in a cavernous strip mall next to Westgate Mall. This was a HUGE shopping center, holding a Phar-Mor, Circuit City, and Toys R Us in sort of an L shape. Super Giant was located in the darkest, dankest storefront available, in the recessed corner of the complex. The strip mall was generally considered a failure, BTW, apparently because the rent was too high. Aside from the three big anchor stores, most of the retail space remained (and remains) empty. But everyone in my family was happy with this location; we rented movies and games from Phar-Mor, and my grandparents refilled their prescriptions there. Circuit City was probably my father's favorite store at the time, and my brother was still young enough to consider Toys R Us his favorite. This convenience probably fed our comics addiction; in the summer, we would occasionally visit the store a couple of times a week. Eventually Super Giant Comics relocated to a different strip mall, the one dominated by Wal-Mart. It was a less convenient location for us, but I think they did better business there.

Unlike any comics store I've frequented in subsequent years, the Spartanburg Super Giant Comics had predominately female employees. In the five or six years I shopped there, only one out of five cashiers was a dude. The manager of the store was a middle aged woman; she and/or her adult daughter were usually the ones behind the counter when we came in. They were always very nice to my brother and me, and even recognized our mother by sight when she came in to do Christmas shopping. (Despite his massive comics collection, Dad never took much of an interest in our comics hobby.) I don't think the daughter actually read comics, but her mother was a fan of Golden Age superheroes. Most of the other employees liked us too; in fact, I think we were sort of a source of amusement. I never remember receiving unsolicited recommendations, and I really don't remember asking for any either. I knew what I liked.

Where did I learn about new comics? I think most people in the early 90s were relying on Comics Shop News, but Super Giant didn't carry it. I was an avid reader of Marvel's in-house hype organ, Marvel Age. In fact, my brother actually collected back issues of Marvel Age, which we both read cover-to-cover! I think this might have presaged my interest in the history and discourse of the mundane. I also read Comics Scene, a glossy magazine published by Starlog. The Wikipedia entry linked above claims that Comics Scene focused primarily on movie adaptations rather than actual comics, but I remember more of an even split between the two subjects. I read Wizard when it started up as well, but I'll cover that in greater detail later on.

Since I was mostly buying Marvel anyway, I'm not sure how much it matter that I was getting most of my news from the house organ. I certainly wasn't buying everything they hyped in the magazine. I had almost zero interest in X-Men or its spinoffs, for instance. I think this was mostly due to the property's low visibility in the realm of licensed products during the early 80s. I was also intimidated by what seemed like a sprawling, impenetrable backstory. Worst of all, it just never looked like it would be any fun. Instead, I continued to read comics featuring Spider-Man, Thor, Silver Surfer, and the Avengers.

I mentioned in the previous installment that I was not just a reader, but a collector by this period. This is a little misleading--I wasn't really collecting every issue of a given series, but every issue of a given series featuring art (and to a lesser extent writing) by a given creator. When Todd McFarlane left Amazing Spider-Man, I was pissed. I actually felt betrayed, blaming editorial for this horrific turn of events. That his replacement, Erik Larsen, seemed to be imitating his style made matters far worse. In other cases, I picked up books because I was excited about the incoming creators. West Coast Avengers (Byrne) and Fantastic Four (Simonson) are the two good examples of this phenomenon; neither book was of any interest to me before, and I had no particular fondness for the characters either. I was just interested in reading comics by John Byrne and Walt Simonson.

However much I liked the work of a creator, however, I was not willing to follow him (or, occasionally, her) to the ends of the earth. I was totally mesmerized by the art of Jim Lee (and Whilce Portacio, too, for that matter) as soon as I saw it, but I had absolutely zero interest in reading a Punisher comic (partly because I was already quite the good little liberal, appropriately offended at the idea of the Punisher as a hero). Likewise, I passed on the Simonsons' X-Factor due to my aversion to all things mutant. Later on, when Portacio, Lee, and Liefeld were on all the X-books, I would reluctantly wade my way into this morass. But when the 90s first hit, both my budget and my patience were limited.

I think I had about seven books on my pull list at the dawn of the decade. I'm not sure exactly what these books were--I suspect it was something like West Coast Avengers, Silver Surfer, She-Hulk, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange...and that's as far as I can go without consulting my long boxes. I didn't get a lot of allowance money in my early adolescence--I think it was maybe $2 a week for a rotating schedule of washing dishes, taking out the trash, and feeding the dog. My brother and I were supposed to rotate between these tasks, but the only one which we consistently managed to perform was feeding the dog. As a result, we didn't receive our allowance on a consistent basis. We could, however, rely on a $1 weekly stipend from my grandfather (which my grandmother eventually matched), which covered a significant chunk of our monthly comics bill. I'm not sure about my brother, but almost all my money at that time was going toward comic buying. Comics were not my only interest, but nothing else required a financial commitment--I could watch/read about sports for free, and I mostly listened to the radio to get my fix of new music. We rented most of our video games; for whatever reason, my parents were always willing to pay for spur-0f-the-moment rentals, but not for purchases (except for Super Mario 3, but that involved an extraordinary and pathetic amount of begging from my brother and me). My interest in the opposite sex was purely theoretical at the time, so that didn't take any money, either. Mom bought all my clothes, which might be related to the previous sentence.

I wasn't restricting my purchases to the titles on my pull list. I still made a fair number of impulse buys, usually based on how much I liked the art when I flipped through the issue in the store. Sometimes impulse buys would graduate into regular buys, but usually they remained sporadic purchases. I was still buying 95% Marvel, mostly because my sense of aesthetics were very much in harmony with what Marvel was producing at that time (probably because my tastes had been shaped by years of reading Marvel comics). I occasionally bought a DC comic, usually something featuring Batman. Generally speaking, though, I never even looked at the stuff DC was producing at the time. Even today, I couldn't tell you much of anything about the DC comics of the period. I occasionally fell victim to Marvel/DC's hype machine--I bought a copy of War of the Gods #1, but none of the crossovers. I think I viewed that first issue as an investment, actually. I wasn't especially good about preserving my comics--I frequently stuffed four issues in a single bag--but I still bought a lot of first issues as some sort of half-assed investment scheme. This tendency became more pronounced in the years to come.

As for non-Marvel/DC stuff, I don't remember buying a whole lot of it. This was in the lull between the B&W bust and the rise of Image/Valiant/Malibu, so it's not like there was a lot of material out there which would have appealed to a 13 year old boy. I bought the Dark Horse Star Wars series as soon as it started, but I didn't manage to buy every single issue. It's not that I wasn't aware of independent comics--Comics Scene was actually very good about covering them--it's just that they weren't much of a priority most of the time. Strangely though, when my family was on vacation in the Beaufort area, we bought a ton of independent comics out of the cheap bins at Sports Cards Unlimited. I'm not sure what brought this on exactly--probably a combination of affordability, excess money (we always seemed to have a little more while on vacation), boredom, a desire to remain "loyal" to Super Giant by not buying our regular comics, and the novelty of the situation inspiring experimentation or something. In any event, the stuff we were buying wasn't especially great--Puma Blues was almost certainly the best of the bunch. Mostly it was stuff like post-Eastman/Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My brother really liked Femforce a lot, to the point where I think he would have kept buying it if Super Giant had carried it.

So anyway, all things considered, I don't think shopping at a dedicated comics shop really changed my buying habits as much as one might guess. I still collected only those series where I enjoyed both the characters and the creative teams. I still made a lot of impulse purchases. I still spent most of my money on comics. I certainly didn't start buying a more diverse array of comics. In fact, I can't really remember if Super Giant Comics really carried a much in the way of non-Marvel/DC, non-superhero stuff. That's probably pretty telling re: my attitudes towards those kinds of comics at the time.

How does this relate to the contemporary direct market? Well, I'm not sure if there are really a lot of consumers like the 13-year-old me out there anymore. There just aren't many self-contained stories anymore, which discourages impulse buying. I was always willing to pick up comics of which I didn't know the backstory or any of the characters, so long as it wasn't in the middle of a story. That's really not possible anymore. I'm not saying that people don't make impulse buys in the comics shop today--I do it all the time myself--but I suspect these purchases are for graphic novels, not single issues. That might be a bit out of the price range for the average kid, especially if they're already spending $6-9 on floppies every week.

Second, I wonder about the current discussion re: kids' willingness to blow all their dough on stupid, overpriced comics. I was certainly willing to do it back then. Now, I'm not trying to say I was a typical comics reader--I was obviously a fanatic even back then--but I really don't see many teenagers in comics shops anymore. Maybe they're downloading comics, or reading manga, or maybe video games are so cool now that they feel compelled to save up all their money in order to buy them instead of comics. (This begs the question: why aren't kids just pirating the games AND the comics? And if they are, what exactly do they spend their money on? Internet access? IPods?) This is especially strange, given that more shop owners are trying to be kid-friendly these days. Do any of you shop at stores with a lot of young teenage customers?

Tomorrow: I might need to do a forensic analysis of my comics collection (or, to be more accurate, the portion of it which resides in my apartment rather than at my parent's home) in order to proceed any further. So that might delay it by a day, cause I've got a hankering to play some Oblivion tonight.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Dark Horse in the misogyny sweepstakes; also, 1990s part one

-Hey, maybe somebody at Blogorama can explain to me--will every new Minx release be met by a week of guest blogging by one of the creators? Can anybody fill me in on the details there? Off the record is fine, BTW.

-About the recent seinen manga controversy: I read this first, which probably saved me a lot of unnecessary grief. Related: is seinen commonly stereotyped as either (a) Berserk-style blood-and-guts shit, or (b) katana-and-sandals? I mean, I know seinen encompasses these genres, but I also associate it with series I read and enjoy, like Dragon Head or Monster. And wouldn't Death Note be considered seinen? Isn't that, like, really popular in the US? Maybe I understand the term less than I realized.

-Speaking of stuff I read on Mr. Allen Butcher's blog, this post by Tom Spurgeon really should be accompanied by a photo of Brian Wood with some ironic-ish "PWNED LOLZ" type caption. Or you can just imagine it as you read the post. Or not.

-Okay, I know that yesterday I more or less equated attending the San Diego convention*
with being stuck on an airplane behind two used car salesmen talking shop. But still, this one panel sounds pretty awesome:

11:30-1:00 Comics Are Not Literature—For years, comics have presented themselves as a new kind of literature—but cartooning isn’t prose, and graphic novels aren’t novels. What if conflating comics with “literary” storytelling is a terrible mistake? Douglas Wolk (Reading Comics) moderates what should be a contentious discussion with Cecil Castellucci (The PLAIN Janes), Dan Nadel (PictureBox Inc.), Austin Grossman (Soon I Will Be Invincible), Paul Tobin (Spider-Man Family), and Sara Ryan (The Rules for Hearts). Room 8

(Via Heidi MacDonald)

*To be fair, this is basically how I feel about all conventions. I might be persuaded to go to MoCCA, SPX, APE, or that Toronto festival if I lived nearby, but I've never lived in a sufficiently interesting part of the country to have to entertain such possibilities.

-Okay, okay, fuck Dark Horse then. Truth be told, the fact that a dedicated comics publisher is reprinting these books is far more disturbing to me than any number of zombie Mary Janes. I know why Dark Horse is publishing it--money, duh--but I'd love to hear one of its employees try to rationalize this on a less-mercenary level.* "Gor is a...much celebrated...very influential...unique voice...first amendment...oh fuck it, we just like money."

*Preferably at a convention! Once again, I have an extra copy of Pyongyang (hardcover!) which I will offer to anyone who poses this question at a Dark Horse-centric panel at any of the remaining mega-conventions left this summer.

-Musical misogyny theater: Which of the following should I feel the most ashamed about liking:

1. "Glendora" by the Downliners Sect (If you've never heard it, I think you can download it here, on a compilation with a bunch of other good stuff like "I Had So Much to Dream Last Night" and "You Are No Friend of Mine." In all seriousness, there's some fucking awesome stuff on that playlist. You really shouldn't go through life having never heard "Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love-In).")
2. The entire recorded output of the Faces
3. "Jilted John" by Jilted John
4. All the good Rolling Stones songs
5. "Golf Girl" by Caravan (warning: not very loud)

Please note that I do not, in reality, feel guilty about liking any of the above. This is merely an intellectual exercise. Maybe I'll try to connect it to comics tomorrow.

...And that's it for the timely commentary today. Now we turn our experiment in what might hubristically be called the new social history of the comics industry:

Dick Hyacinth's 1990s

Still haven't found a better title yet, but at least it's in a nearly illegible font. Actually, I'm not even going to cover the 90s today. As any history major can tell you, you can't talk about the Civil War until you've talked about the Mexican-American War. Likewise, I can't really explain how I experienced the comics industry of the 1990s without first explaining where I was coming from as a consumer. By the time 1990 hit, I was a 13-year old dedicated comics reader/buyer, spending the majority of my modest allowance on comics. This mania for comics did not arise overnight, however; it came in stages.

Comics were a part of my life as far back as I can remember. My mother would regularly include comic books in our rotation of bedtime stories; in fact, I distinctly remember her being offended at my sharp refusal of a Whitman Little Lulu reprint she wanted to read for me one night (I think there was some image involving cigarette ashes I found repulsive on some deep, visceral level). Superhero intellectual properties were also a big part of my life, especially DC's. I once asked my mother if high school ended early enough that I would still be able to watch Super Friends when I was 16.

Sometime c. 1984, I became an avid reader of comics. There were basically three causes for this: (1) DC and Marvel's publication of encyclopedia series for their intellectual properties, especially DC's Who's Who; (2) the Secret Wars and Super Powers toy lines, which led me to the comics of the same name--Secret Wars was particularly influential; (3) comics based on preexisting toy lines, especially G.I. Joe. These three phenomena introduced me to the world of continuity and shared universes, which were kind of like crack for 8-year-old boys like me.

By about 1986 I had graduated to being a connoisseur of comic books. I had favorite artists now, largely because Who's Who familiarized me to a fairly wide assortment of artists. I had always noticed that there was something different about certain artists (eg, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Gene Colan), but now I could immediately identify anything drawn by them. Plus I actually knew the artists' names. This is not to say I suddenly had good taste: I still thought Bill Sienkiewicz' art was ugly.

Even more important was my growing appreciation for older comics, which reflected two new developments. First, my father let me start reading his stash of Silver Age comics that summer. This was a horrible mistake from an investment protection standpoint, but it only deepened my comics obsession. Second, Gladstone began publishing reprints of Disney and EC comics. I loved them both; I think my brother and I were buying them more regularly than any DC or Marvel comics at the time.

By about a year and a half later, I had made another transition; I was now an active collector of comics. I was never one to throw away comics after I was done reading them, but I was never overly concerned with how they were stored either (I threw them all in an old trunk, with no attempt to place them in any particular order). I had never been very interested in buying every issue of any given series; I determined which comics to buy based on cover art, the characters involved (especially the villains), and financial considerations. But in 1987, I started buying every issue of two series: the Englehart/Rogers Silver Surfer and the Michelinie/McFarlane Amazing Spider-Man.

What prompted this change? I think reading my father's collection might have had some impact. My dad had (and still has) a very nice SA collection which he acquired in college. Unfortunately, there are a number of holes in it, probably partly because he bought all his comics from a second-hand dealer (who, in retrospect, was probably buying all his comics from unscrupulous newsstand dealers). This frustrated the hell out of me, leading me to place greater value on getting every issue of the comics I liked. Another factor was, uh, puberty. There's no problem with reading comics when you're a kid, but I was already feeling a little uncomfortable with it by the time I was 11. It was around this time that I started using the investment excuse--sure, comics might be dumb, but they'll be worth something someday. In the meantime, there's no harm in reading them, right? Finally, I was no longer playing with toys, but I wasn't buying a whole lot of music yet. So that money now went towards comics.

My collecting mentality was exacerbated when my brother and I started buying all our comics at a genuine comic shop. Prior to this we had bought everything at drug stores or (very occasionally) the B. Dalton's at the mall. In fact, the only comic shop in town was not very kid-friendly. The store was festooned with signs offering stern warnings to parents. Super Giant Comics was a store primarily for adults. Children should not be left unsupervised. They certainly must not pick up a book off the shelf or out of the bins and start reading it. In fact, maybe your children would be more comfortable with these lightly soiled items we're selling for a quarter each?

By 1987, however, we were apparently well-behaved enough to become welcome guests every week at the comic shop. And we were comic-crazy enough to hold off on purchases until we went into town. (It didn't hurt that the comics arrived a month earlier at Super Giant than at the drug store). My brother and I shared a pull list together; there was a minimum of three titles per list, and neither of us were willing to commit to that many series. Yet.

I should note that, somewhere between my connoisseur and collector phases, I quit reading non-superhero comic books. This probably has something to do with the influence of my father's collection (I don't think he had any non-superhero comics, with the exception of a few issues of Sgt. Fury), the diminished presence of non-superhero comics on my local spinner rack, pressure to be more "macho" or whatever as I grew older, and the disappearance of Gladstone reprints from my local store. At no point, however, did I give up on non-superhero comics. I was still a voracious reader of comic strips, both in the newspaper and in reprinted form. And I checked out from the library every book which had word balloons.

Also worth noting: around this same time I became a total Marvel Zombie. This is sort of strange, since DC's superheroes were a much bigger part of my life when I was a younger child. There are probably several reasons for this transformation. Like many college-aged comics readers in the 60s, my father was always more of a Marvel fan, and his collection reflected this. He did have some non-Marvel stuff (I remember reading a Justice League 80 Page Giant in the car while the rest of my family was playing tennis at the public court), but his collection was probably 2/3 Marvel. I also gravitated towards Marvel because their comics were cheaper. During the early avid reader phase, Marvel comics were 60 cents each. DC charged 75 cents, thus ensuring that I would buy fewer of their comics. Another factor was the familiarity Marvel editorial tried to foster between itself and the reader. This is an oft-cited aspect of Marvel's success in the 60s; bear in mind that I was reading those very Silver Age comics while still young and impressionable. Still, I think this familiarity persisted well into the 80s, at least for me. Bullpen Bulletins talked to me on a level which I appreciated as a 10 year old kid. In contrast, Meanwhile... felt too grown up, like someone telling an anecdote on the Dick Cavett Show. Bullpen Bulletins featured profiles of editors which read like something out of The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe. That really spoke to the pre-pubescent Dick Hyacinth. Finally, Marvel had a much stronger line of licensed comics--Transformers, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and He-Man were all toy lines/cartoons which I enjoyed, so I naturally bought the comics as well (not so much the latter two, however, since they seemed a bit more "kiddie"). I think this inspired a greater loyalty to Marvel's overall line of comics.

So anyway, that's where I stood on the threshold of the 90s. I'll actually delve into that decade tomorrow.

Monday, July 9, 2007

And you know what else? Water is WET!

-Oh man, am I not looking forward to the San Diego convention. Not that I'm going or anything like it--I'm just dreading the avalanche of news and accounts of assorted schmoozings which it will inevitably produce. It's just too much shit. Is it possible someone could just start emailing me press releases? I don't mean the actual companies, since I don't want to have to sift through announcements of sell-outs and reprintings. What I'm looking for is kind of a reverse press secretary. In other words, someone who will retrieve the news for me and determine which items are most worthy of snide commentary. And then I would comment on probably about a third of these collected items, probably about three days after everyone else quit caring.

I guess this means I've reached the point where the Google Reader isn't convenient enough. There are so many unread items, friends. It's actually progressed beyond being a burden--it's more of one of those festering problems which nobody really cares about anymore. Like the massive pile of junk in our basement or the Direct Market's march towards oblivion.

-So DC apparently is going to start publishing webcomics or something, all in some kind of attempt to stockpile intellectual properties. Of course this is stupid, since webcomics are pretty cheap to produce. In fact, they're free if you're unpopular enough. (I'm pretty sure I could publish my forthcoming webcomic, General Forrest's Howling Klansmen, on this very blog.) But any idiot could tell you that. It hardly needs be said.

Instead, I'd like to remind everyone that, a few months ago, I proposed a solution to online comics piracy in which DC/Marvel would allow unauthorized works using their intellectual properties to circulate on the internet. The creators of these comics would not be paid for their work, but they wouldn't be sued either. Any creator who produced work of sufficient quality to be exploited in media which people actually pay for (ie, everything but comics) might be paid a retainer. Clever creators might see this glorified fan fiction as a way to advertise their "real" work, the stuff which doesn't feature corporate intellectual properties. As for the Brad Meltzers and J. Micheal Stazynskis of the world, this would give them a chance to really push their imaginations to the limits. Batman could be reimagined as a lapsed Trappist monk possessed by the ghost of the Marquis de Sade who punishes criminals by raping them! That might not sound like good reading, but it would allow us once and for all to figure out what motivates the fanboy psyche: anal retentiveness or extreme sexual perversion. (If it's the former, the rape comics will die on the vine because they're not officially in continuity; if the latter, then we're in for some highly unpleasant rounds of stake-raising.) And yet I still think the quality of comics featuring Marvel/DC characters would improve under my plan.

So Paul Levitz and other dudes I've never heard of, which side of history are you on? You might be able to trick aspiring creators whose naiveté rivals that of a three year old child, but what kind of intellectual properties are they going to submit? Probably just recycled versions of the same shit you already publish. My plan is the way of the future--it will eliminate virtually all costs except lawyers' fees. Actually, I really should be taking this plan to someone who isn't going to be encumbered by a familiarity with/fondness for Matter-Eater Lad. Who is Paul Levitz' boss, anyway? That's the dude I should be talking to (and bear in mind I mean "dude" in a non-gender-specific way, naturally).

-Things I Never Manage to Follow Up On Dept: I think I promised to say something more about the comics industry in the 90s about a month ago, and proceeded to ignore said promise. I don't think I'm quite up to the task of rehabilitating the decade; I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to do so anyway. Those really were some dreadful comics, even more so now that I'm not reading them with a 14-year-old's eyes. Still, I do want to say something about the current stereotypes circulating about comics in the 90s. Unfortunately, I really can only speak from personal experience. None of my junior high/high school friends read comics--as a group, we were more into fantasy football and destroying mailboxes.

Nevertheless, starting tomorrow (hopefully), I'm going to start a series of reminiscences/confessions about that most hated of decades. I'll probably call it Dick Hyacinth's 90s, unless I come to my senses sometime in the next 24 hours. I can't promise that anyone will learn anything, but maybe we can reconsider the existing discourse concerning the 90s. Then maybe I'll retitle this blog "Dick Facilitates Discourse," or (perhaps more likely) "Dick Fails to Facilitate Discourse."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

So, am I taking this week off (he asks on Thursday)?

Looks like it. Not because I'm doing anything interesting (I made risotto last night, which is probably the high point of the week so far; fondue on Saturday, though), but because everybody else in the industry apparently is, leaving me with little to talk about. Plus, due to circumstances beyond my control, I've had to get up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM every morning this week. My body doesn't like this, apparently. It's not the lack of sleep--I've fared better with fewer hours. It's more like there's some gland or nerve cluster or something that just doesn't like being active at 5:30 in the morning. It's like I've got a heavy weight tethered to my forehead until about 9 AM. I don't know how you commuters manage.

Oh, hey, UFC 73 is this weekend. Look at the Wikipedia page for it--they could practically run a Brazil vs. US theme for this (especially if you want to claim Gurgel for the US, though I'm not sure how he'd feel about this kind of identity annexation). My picks: Silva (narrowly), Sherk (widely), Evans, Nog, Florian (upset possible here), Gurgel, Bonnar (assuming his dealer hasn't cut him off), Lytle, and Edgar (and that last bout had better make the air). On a related note, I hear that Rampage-Henderson at 75 won't be for the title--which is UTTER PRO WRESTLING BULLSHIT, to an extent which dwarfs whatever seems like the most utter bullshit in the comics industry right now. This is like finding out that Jack Kirby and Charles Schulz collaborated on a previously undiscovered Tintin series--of NOVELS. Actually, that's a rather flawed analogy, but I'm pretty sure I've lost all but a couple of you at this point.

Anyway, normal service resumes Monday, or the next time some scrap of news/blog entry inspires the customary verbosity.