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.