Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm Thankful for Two Decades of This Nonsense.

So this past Thanksgiving, me and Carmen drove up to my grandmother's in Palm Desert for family din-din and all that. Whee. Two-plus hours driving in pissing rain with bad directions given to me by my mother. It wasn't all bad, of course, and the trip actually held some significance for me besides securing any future inheritance. See, it was in that exact house on Zircon Circle, on Thanksgiving Day 1988, that my grandmother gave me a five-dollar bill. And it was in that sleepy retirement community of Palm Desert, CA, that my aunt took me with her to the Thrifty's to buy batteries for my cousin's birthday present. And it was in that Thrifty's, right there in the magazine aisle, that I stepped across a threshold from which I have never returned.

Twenty years ago this Thanksgiving, I began collecting comic books.

How I'd gotten to this point--a sawed-off, buzz-cutted, short-pantsed 11-year-old, clutching an Abe Lincoln in his sweaty hand and facing a spinner rack for the first (but certainly not last) time--is a whole other really pretty boring story. But that fall I had gotten it into my head that I was gonna collect comics. And so I have. I still have those first five books, so, y'know, I thought it'd be a good idea to go back and read them and share whatever observations I have about these, my first baby steps into the wasteland of comic-dom. It probably isn't a good idea, but since when has that ever stopped me?

Groo the Wanderer #'s 47 and 48: But where to begin? I had a few titles in mind on which to cut my eye-teeth, but being presented with a good thirty or forty dollar-priced collections of four-color wonderment, I was quite understandably overcome. Fortunately, my good buddy, Sergio Aragonés, showed up to help me out.

Although I'd just discovered comics, I'd known about and been into Mad magazine for some time, and Aragonés was generally undisputed among my friends and I as the best of the usual gang of idiots, or at least, the one we enjoyed the most (Don Martin was practically tied for that spot with me, but I digress). But I had no idea that aside from his monthly Mad piece, plus all the Marginals, that Sergio also did a full-blown, full-color comic book. If this wasn't a sign of providence, then I'd be goddamned. #48 was technically the first one I saw and grabbed, but #47 got snapped up also and was a damn fine issue to begin with. Granted, I didn't catch a few of the running gags (though I soon would), but nearly the whole Groo universe is in this issue: The Sage and Mulch, The Minstrel, Arba and Dakarba, Taranto, Gravito, Arcadio, Grooella, and of course, Rufferto. When I reported this find back to my friends, it was an instant hit. Jeremy Howell was an even bigger Mad nerd than I, so he couldn't resist, and I also believe this was the bug that bit Chuck Maldonado and infected him with comics fever (by the way, Chuck, if you're out there, I still have your Cerebus phone books).

Speaking of my 6th-grade crew, the copy I now have of #47 is not the original Palm Desert Thrifty's one. I am certain that was kiped by one Brian Mann. Not the Brian Mann I ended up going to high school with, but this other guy that I'd known since we were seven or eight years old. We were friends and stuff, but our friendship would often hit a low ebb, and I basically just didn't trust the slippery fucker. And with good reason. When I discoverd this issue missing one day after school, I called all my friends to see if I'd left it over at their house or loaned it to them and forgotten or something. None of 'em had seen it, but Brian was particularly emphatic: "No, dude, I don't have it, you can come over here and look for yourself, it's not here." The whole lady-protesteth-too-much schtick. I knew he had it, but without any proof, I knew there wasn't much I could do. So I just shrugged and let this putz make a monkey out of me, an action that would become a disquieting habit as I grew older. I heard a few years later, after I'd moved away, that Brian had become some sorta goth-type. So I'm sure he's had his ass kicked for me a few times over by now. Still. Cold comfort, that.

Say, that reminds me: Jere Hoskins, I know you stole my copy of Daredevil #258 in the seventh grade, so I owe you a punch in the nuts, too.

Uncle Scrooge #'s 231 and 232: I mostly got these because I thought my cousin would like them. He did seem to enjoy them, but, y'know...he was one year old. I coulda waved The New York Post in front of him and probably woulda gotten the same reaction.

What also strikes me about these is just how fucking terrified of adolesence I was at the age of 11. I certainly couldn't have put it into words then, but instinct told me change was on its way and that things were gonna get worse before they got better. I could hear puberty coming up the drive to beat me in the face with an acne-bat, and I was, naturally, frightened out of my gourd. So I began regressing in the trenches. I remember clearly at this age taking a sudden, intense interest in all that could be labelled childish: cartoons, toys, the Muppets, you name it. Girls? Are you kidding me? When Duck Tales is on? I knew it was inevitable, that I was gonna have to grow hair in weird places and stuff like that. But I sure as hell wasn't gonna go quietly.

Having come out on the other side of that now (mostly, anyways), I'm really glad I had the foresight not to grow out of that stuff. I'm not treading any new ground with these discoveries, I know. But I came to realize over the years that only dead-eyed, soulless fucks turn their backs on the things that bring them joy and try to pass it off as maturity. I'm certain you've known or know people like that, and when you look in their faces, you can see how ripped-off they feel and how much they hate themselves for it. Now all they can do is sit around and wait for Scatman Caruthers to show up and teach them how to play kick-the-can again.

Well, I'm certainly not too grown up to say: ha ha on you, suckers!

The Uncanny X-Men #239: I suppose that my then-new passion for comics in general, not just Disney stuff, can be seen as an 11-year-old wishing he was a one-year-old again. But I think my interest in superhero comics can rather be read as an 11-year-old wishing he could hurry up and be a 31-year-old already, working weekends in a comic shop and getting laid regularly. In other essays (one of which I will post here at a later date, I'm sure), I've attempted to argue against the commonly-held misconception that super-hero comics are merely an outlet for pent-up adolescent power fantasies, but are instead a vehicle for young men (gender-specific in this case because that's what I was and am) to use in order to come to terms with their own identities. So to put it in the half-assed Freudian terms I've been using, Uncle Scrooge represents regression, and The Uncanny X-Men represents a type of sublimation (I guess. My Freud is pretty rusty).

Speaking of Freud, Marc Silvestri is not a very good artist. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about how by this point in time, comics had reached their own adolesence, and how the pre-pubescent, more cartoon-y stylings of the old-timers had made way for the more line-y, jagged edge renderings of your Silvestris, your McFarlanes, your Liefelds. Y'know, representative of the teen angst felt by many comics readers. This makes sense to me, but it's still no excuse for all the mullets. Really, what were we thinking back then? That was never a good look, and you can't tell me otherwise. Technically, I've got no problem with Silvestri's art. As opposed to the laudable techniques of Liefeld's stuff, say, the guy could actually draw. But as far as the general asethetic of comics goes, the party line definitely had its head up its ass back then.

But all the above is fodder for a later discussion, I think. As it was, I wanted a comic with Wolverine in it. I couldn't find any of his solo title, but I had read that he was in the X-Men too, so I grabbed this up. Like Groo #47, this should have been a fairly good jumping-off point. It's the prologue to that summer's big "Inferno" crossover, so the whole issue is pretty much a run-down of who's who and what's what. But unlike Groo #47, this book is dealing with a much more vast, less cartoon-y universe. So to say I was confused would be an understatement. I mean, Colossus and Mr. Sinister look almost exactly the same, especially in their head and face area. That threw me off quite a bit. Apparently, Lorna Dane (a.k.a. Polaris) and Malice were the same person or in the same body or some shit. That didn't make any sense at the time, but of course, I caught on with comic book logic pretty quickly. I knew it was just all new to me, and that everything would become clear soon enough. And it did for the most part. In my naivete, I overestimated the caliber of superhero writing in assuming that everything would be made clear eventually. But it more or less was, even if what became clear was some shit wouldn't be made clear because the Marvel universe is just too damn big and convoluted by this point. So, y'know, no big.

The good news is, as I'm sure I've intimated before, a lot of this shit is coming back, but it's being handled much better. Mr. Sinister has been in recent issues of X-Force, Wolverine: Origins, and X-Men: Legacy, and Maddie Pryor seems to be on her way back, and it's nice to see old faces again. We can argue all night and day as to whether the team of Chris Claremont and Silvestri (or whoever) is superior to that of Matt Fraction and Terry Dodson (or whoever), but I think an inarguable fact is that Claremont, et al, were relevant to their time. God bless, but it was a lot goofier time. I shouldn't say Silvestri's a bad artist, and I certainly wouldn't say Claremont's a bad writer. But what guys like Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Christopher Yost, and the rest are doing is stripping down the narrative and getting rid of all that, at times enjoyable, but all around useless techniques like the melodramatic narrator and flashback monologues. Again, a product of their times. I noticed that when TV shows began including a "Previously on..." at the beginning of each episode, comics took a cue there and did away with editorial asterisks. A lot of guys I know bemoan the ommission of these little things, claiming comics aren't the same.

I say, neither are we. And neither should be our comics.

All right, I gotta go take the trash to the curb. For those of you keeping score, I ditched the "Hey, Kids! Comics!" thread if for no other reason than I used a silly-ass phrase like "liquid journal" at one point. That, and it was just taking me too damn long. I'm not sure what's up for next month, but I'm sure it'll be too damn much to read on a monitor without your eyeballs drying out. So grab some Visine and I'll talk at you next time. Kisses.