Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Series I have loved: My comic fan biography

What titles made me the idiot I am today?  Let’s take a look at some of the series I made it a point to buy whenever I found them back there in my distant past, the titles that entranced me the most and made me spend way too much time thinking about and guessing what would happen next.  I’m going to try to put these in chronological order, but I’ll probably screw it up.  Oh well, what the hell? Let's go!

1)    Sgt. Rock/Our Army at War.  Both of the Sgt. Rock-starring titles.  As far as I know—and until we get the results of my hypnotic regression sessions-- these were literally the first comics I read.
2)    Richie Rich.  Any title with Richie.  I went through an intense Richie Rich period at one point.  Also, to a lesser extent, Casper.
3)    Archie.  Any of the Archie titles.  Since they all pretty much featured the same cast of characters, I didn’t differentiate between them.  But I generally preferred the digests because they packed more value and featured cool stories from the characters’ earliest days and I liked that art more than the newer stuff.  I also got into Little Archie in a big way.
4)    Planet of the Apes.  The Curtis/Marvel black and whites.  I liked the color series but it didn’t last long, while these showed up at the grocery store fairly frequently and for a few years.  Although they were pricey and scary, I managed to talk my parents into buying them for me one a few magic occasions.  I’d have bought them all if they’d had better distribution and we were a little better off financially.
5)    Batman.  This was more off and on, but I never turned down a chance to read either Batman or Detective Comics starring Batman.
6)    Superman.  The original.  The greatest of the superheroes.  If you don't dig Superman, you probably should go read another blog.  Or keep reading this one.  Either way.  I don't mind.  Much like with Batman, I bought Superman and Action Comics whenever the need to read about the Man of Steel struck me.  Sometimes I could go for over a year without seeing what he was up to.  When the Christopher Reeve movies came out, I started buying these whenever I could.
7)    Spider-Man.  Starting with Amazing, and then, when I was a teenager, the Spectacular.  My intro was the Gil Kane era, and I had the first appearance of the Punisher.  Left it out in the rain and it fell apart.  This is a character whose books would really catch on with me from time-to-time depending on the creative team.  During the 1980s, I had a massive run of them, with over 100 issues at one point, including some major milestones of that era.
8)    Star Trek.  The Gold Key series.  Since I was a huge fan of the TV show, I tried to get my hands on as many of these as I could.  But, like a lot of Gold Key books, they only showed up intermittently and everyone ended up with huge gaps in their Star Trek collections.  I read the two or three I had until they fell apart.
9)    Teen Titans.  The first volume.  I have vivid memories of borrowing a lot of these from a friend of mine and reading them at dinner, forever associating the Titans with steak and dinner rolls in my mind.
10)  Justice League of America.  All the heroes in one title!  A bargain!  Plus it was a little like Superfriends.  When you're a kid and your income derives mainly from change found between sofa cushions or near the drain at the deep end of the local swimming pool, you tend to economize and look for more heroes for your money.  Justice League was a wallet-saver.  I got into this book thanks to a reprint paperback I had of the team taking on the Adaptoids or some such thing.
11)  The Incredible Hulk.  Of course I bought this.  The TV was a must-watch weekly event.
12)  Micronauts.  All the coolness of Star Wars but with better artwork.  Plus, my friends and I were really into the toys.  This is one of the first books I seriously collected, searching for back issues and new issues no matter where we were—at home, at the beach, in the mountains.
13)  Conan the Barbarian.  And Savage Sword of Conan.  My middle brother introduced me to this character and I was hooked.  A monthly buy, especially when drawn by either John Buscema or Gil Kane.  Conan the Barbarian marked the beginning of my serious comic book fandom, when I began reading comics almost obsessively and began dreaming of becoming a comic book artist.
14)  Uncanny X-Men. I got into this title around the same time.  A friend of mine had a run of issues starting with #94 and I bought them all for about a buck each, plus one-time use of my left-handed baseball glove.  I had no idea I was risking addiction. Through this comic I became a fan of Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, John Byrne and Paul Smith.  I didn’t like John Romita, Jr.’s art on the X-people; I much preferred him on Spidey.
15)  New Teen Titans.  At one point the new Titans were more popular than the X-Men around my parts.  I started reading this title with #1 mostly because of the slick George Perez art.
16)  Daredevil.  The Frank Miller run, naturally.  Friends kept telling me about it but it wasn’t until I bought a couple of issues—including the first one Miller wrote and drew—at a flea market that I realized what they were talking about.  The panel-to-panel storytelling was a revelation, as was Miller’s wonky, slapdash anatomy.  I decided if I could just learn how to tell comic book stories cinematically it wouldn’t matter that I couldn’t draw for squat.
17)  E-Man.  A couple of comic book shops opened in our town at almost the same time, one in a small storefront and the other at an indoor flea market.  The owners of the former were a middle-aged married couple, super friendly people who often commissioned me to do artwork for their store and paid in posters and comics.  The owner of the latter was a skinny, loud guy who wasn’t shy about mocking the other store’s name.  But they all gave me sterling recommendations for reading material and broadened my comic book horizons considerably.  E-Man was the first of the indie comics I latched onto, the First Comics version. Man, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever read, especially when Martin Pasko and Joe Staton took potshots at Uncanny X-Men, a title I was still very much in love with at the time, so much so I even enjoyed parodies of it.
18) Judge Dredd.  The Eagle Comics color versions.  Could you ever go wrong with Brian Bolland covers?  His interior art blew my mind, too, but I also came to appreciate Ron Smith and Mike McMahon as well.  The coloring on these books was gorgeous, too.  And Dredd himself, never suspecting the joke was on him, made a compelling figure with his perpetual scowl and his big green boots.
19)  American Flagg.  I probably shouldn’t have been reading this because of all the double entendres and the lingerie-clad women, but read it I did and I loved it.  The typography was really catchy and I dug Howard Chaykin’s art and writing.  This book made me feel smart.
20)  Cerebus.  This was before the whole misogyny rap.  At this point, it was just a cleverly-written series with some laugh-out-loud moments and obviously something deeper going on.
21)  The New Mutants.  The X-Men, but my age.  Dani Moonstar quickly took over the lead spot in the book and as my favorite superhero character.
22)  Alpha Flight.  Byrne goes back to his Canadian roots and puts together a pretty cool team from the crumbs Claremont left on the table.  Puck was, and is, filled with more awesome than most characters twice his height.  I really like Marina, too.  When she turned into a savage version of herself, I ached for her.
23)  Fantastic Four.  The John Byrne era.  It was the last book I latched onto and very possibly the last I let go of when I decided I’d outgrown comics.  These books really captured the excitement of the superhero genre, plus I could never grow tired of looking at Byrne’s art.  The stories were smart, too.  Maybe not as smart as Byrne thought they were, but smart nevertheless.  Remember when the moon fell apart like an anthill and that sideways issue?  Byrne's issues inspired me to read the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby originals and to this day I'm a dedicated 1960s-era Fantastic Four fan.

One title I liked but didn't collect?  Wonder Woman.  I loved the TV show and occasionally read the comic but I considered my enjoyment of it something of an embarrassment.  Why was that?  It didn't come naturally; I learned it.  I lived in the conservative Deep South and entertainment, as with many other aspects of life, tended to be severely gender segregated.  Wonder Woman was, well, a woman, and therefore her comic was for girls.  Whenever I expressed any interest in "girly" things, I got my hand slapped metaphorically by my peers and well-intentioned adults who happened to be complete dopes.  So my love for Wonder Woman, just like my enjoyment of Charlie's Angels for their cool adventures rather than their physical appearance or skimpy undercover outfits, remained top secret.

And then I grew up.  Kinda.  Liking any comic book became an embarrassment to me, so I sold off a lot of my collection—most of those early Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans, plus my Cerebus and even the first two issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian—which I traded for a ton of Kitchen Sink The Spirit reprints, which I still have.  Reading comics in high school and junior college wasn’t considered cool, not even when the first Batman movie came out.  I had to escape my hometown to shrug of the snobbery.  And then came…

24)  EC.  The Gladstone/Gemstone reprints.  When I wasn’t spending my student money on pizza, booze and live shows, I bought every one of these I could find.
25)  Namor.  Byrne again.  Namor as a suit-wearing multi-billionaire?  Sign me up!
26)  Nexus.  Post-college, with a little spending money, I could afford to indulge myself a little.  So when Dark Horse brought back Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus with a run of fantastic mini-series, I was there.  I still am.  It broke my heart when the Dark Horse run ended, so I'm thrilled Baron and Rude have taken up the story again, first as a self-published effort and then back at Dark Horse.  Here's hoping we get to visit Ylum again.
27)  John Byrne’s Next Men.  Byrne telescoped the storytelling, which frustrated me, but I found his science-based approach to superpowers fascinating, as well as the way he tortured his poor cast.
28)  Harbinger.  Jim Shooter shoots… he scores!  Imagine the X-Men with more of a low rent real-world vibe.
29)  Archer and Armstrong.  More Valiant goodness.  A team book, kind of an action comedy.
30)  Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom.  Who am I to argue with Barry Windsor-Smith?
31)  Xenozoic Tales.  I discovered this one via Marvel’s color Epic reprints, then started buying the black and white albums whenever I could afford them.  Yes, I was back in college, studying graphic design this time.  Mark Schultz re-introduced me to an old friend of mine, a certain Al Williamson.  And also classic adventure storytelling and lush artwork.  The stories started off as EC-rips and soon evolved into something epic unto themselves.
32)  Gen13.  And then things got stoopid.  This is a book that cheered me up when life took an extended downward turn, just the kind escapist nonsense I desperately needed at the time.  Hard to believe this book was once so popular it spun off into an experimental title where some of the top names in comics took chances with the characters the creative team behind the regular monthly wouldn’t dare.  But my biggest obsession was—I freely admit—with the dumber-than-dumb but still quite fun main title.  I even drew a couple of pages of continuity with a mind towards submitting them in the hopes of getting hired.  I ended up simply sending in a fan letter.  J. Scott Campbell’s art improved exponentially in each issue even if the plots consisted of recycled elements of better comics.  Later writers and artists turned this into a real comic, but by then the craze was over and nobody cared.  Except me!  I cared.  I care.
33)  Hellboy.  Mike Mignola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula adaptation was another one of the wow moments where I knew I’d found something I’d been missing without even being aware I’d been missing it.  So when he launched Hellboy, I was ready.  Still one of the best franchises out there.
34)  Hate.  Peter Bagge’s signature title is one of those “funny because it’s true” titles, especially if you’ve ever lived in a music-oriented college type town.  You can transpose a lot of the cast’s antics to my friends and me.  I’m not bragging.  It’s embarrassing to read this book.  Really cringe-inducing.  Because we lived it.
35)  Love and Rockets.  Working as a graphic designer/illustrator at a newspaper allowed me to buy a few comics every once in a while and I chose these.  I can’t remember what inspired me to pick up Love and Rockets Volume 2 #5, but it was love at first read.  I very quickly bought all the collections and back issues.  Still one of my all-time faves.  Hopey is an obsession with me.
36)  Kirby's Fourth World.  New Gods, Mister Miracle, Forever People and, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Olsen.  Love 'em to pieces.  I didn't see many of these as a kid, but I've long been a Jack Kirby fan.  His books just didn't come my way very often.  Case in point, Kamandi.  Kamandi (while not part of the Fourth World epic) is another series I'm into in a major way, but I only ever owned that single issue.  Most of what I knew of Kirby I discovered in various reprint collections at the local library or bookstore.  None of these were Fourth World stories, just his early work with Joe Simon or some of his Marvel creations.  A few years ago, DC started repackaging Kirby and I was finally able to read some of his greatest stories in their proper order.
37)  Tomb of Dracula.  Gene Colan.  Marvel collected a few issues as specials back in the 90s, which is when I first caught up with a book whose art I'd been in love with for years because of the panels reproduced in How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way.  But it wasn't until the Essential Tomb of Dracula books came out that I was finally able to fully indulge myself in Marv Wolfman's deliciously purple prose and Gene Colan's nigh-flawless art.
38)  Warren.  Whether it's Creepy or Eerie or Blazing Combat, I cannot get enough of those old Warren books.  Big thanks to Dark Horse and Fantagraphics for putting these babies back into print in hefty, expensive hardcover form.

And now we’ve reached the end of the list.  It's longer than I expected, and I'm pretty sure I've left out a few things.  Some of them I still read, some I’ve long since given up on.  I’ve gotten into a few newer titles in the years since, but these are the ones I concentrate on in this nostalgia blog.  Anything that started post-1996 goes elsewhere!

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