Words of Questionable Wisdom: Allow me to introduce myself”¦
By Paul Sebert
It was a hard time, a strange time. The price of gas had jumped dramatically, the economy was in the toilet, and America had found itself plunged into a war in the Middle East”¦ Amazing how much life has changed in 16 years.
It was 1991 and the trading card industry was seeing an all around boom period which not only saw dozens of new baseball cards flood the market but also many strange dubious collectables hit the market, including Manning’s tasteless “Triumphs and Horrors of the Gulf War” set. My first encounter with comics fandom came through set of Marvel Universe trading cards published by Skybox.
This wasn’t my first encounter with comics mind you. I recall at one point in elementary school stumbling onto a copy of “Legion of Superheroes” and being completely mystified as to why Karate Kid didn’t look like Ralph Macchio. In 1984 American Honda released a promotional Supergirl comic for the purpose of teaching children to buckle their safety belts. Everyone in my elementary school was given a copy, and I must say this thing was the stuff of childhood nightmares. The book featured an intro by then Secretary of the Department of Transportation Elizabeth Dole. Though my memories of the plot are hazy, it involved Supergirl’s secret identity Linda Lee having this remarkably dense boyfriend. The guy would constantly think of new and exciting ways to refuse to wear a seatbelt before ending up in a high speed chase and crashing spectacularly prompting Supergirl to wind up saving his ass. After several of these incidents he wound up in a coma, prompting Superman to somehow enter his dreams (remember this was Pre-Crisis) and teach him the risks of not wearing your safety belt, something you’d think he’d know all too well by now. In the end we saw him waking up and leaving the hospital in a wheelchair, possibly crippled. Needless to say a few years later when my Uncle Gary told me that Supergirl had died, I naturally assumed it was in a car accident brought about by her idiot boyfriend. (Incidentally 1986 the year that brought about “Crisis on Infinite Earths” also gave us a second Honda Supergirl give-away, a more kiddy centric one which featured Supergirl meeting mother goose characters. I can’t help but wonder how kids introduced to the character through this comic felt.)
Living in the small town of Lewisburg, WV the odd freebie such as the Supergirl book, was really the only encounter I had with comics. There were no comic book stores in town and the spinner racks at grocery stores were mostly filled with Archie books which I never cared for. My only real exposure to superheroes was through Saturday morning cartoons like Superfriends and Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends. I wouldn’t truly become accustomed to comic book subculture until I turned 10 and my family moved to Morgantown. There in the Cheat Lake Middle school lunchroom was handed my first Marvel superhero trading cards.
Soon after being indoctrinated into comics I stumbled onto an issue of Wizard Magazine hyping the debut of a new comics company called Image. Alongside issues of books like Spider-Man I started reading things like Spawn and Savage Dragon. While the early Image books provided lots of blood, guts, and style they lacked substance. I soon moved onto Sandman, Stray Bullets, Usagi Yojimbo and Bone. It was a fascinating time to be a fan, but alas I would soon learn that boom periods were more often than not followed by busts. The decline of the comics market in the 90s, the period that I would come to call The Bastard Age of Comics was a truly spectacular thing. Watching Marvel react to DC’s initial success, and the rise of Image was like watching a man shoot himself in the foot, then continue firing over and over until he was out of ammunition. Capwolf”¦ BLAM! Four No More”¦ BLAM! The Crossing”¦ BLAM! Heroes Reborn”¦ BLAM! The Heroes World Purchase”¦ BLAM! Venom Lethal Protector”¦ BLAM! Chapter One”¦ CLICK,CLICK,CLICK,CLICK”¦ Marvel would ultimately sink into a state of bankruptcy and legal troubles which it finally emerged from in the hands of Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad who appointed the Jemas/Quesada regime which put the publishing wing of the company in the black. Say what you will about Jemas and Quesada, but the beginning of their run at Marvel was light at the end of a tunnel.
The most famous of these mistakes of course was The Clone Saga, a storyline which was supposed to last only a few months, but instead wound up dragging on for almost two years of insanity well documented in The Life of Reilly. While some fans believe that the Clone Saga began well then went horribly awry the truth is I hated the clone sage from the very beginning. As a young comic fan I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that they would center this huge story arc around a relatively obscure story from 20 years ago. It seemed ass backwards, and to be honest to some extent I don’t think we’ve fully learned a lesson from it.
DC meanwhile ultimately fell victim of their own excesses”¦ taking risk, after risk. Sometimes it paid off like the creation of Kyle Rayne, who despite what some Hal fans will tell you was a red-hot character for years. Ultimately like a gambler at the blackjack table the odds caught up and by the time someone got the less than brilliant idea to literally tread on Superman’s cap by changing his costume to a hideous electric blue thing fans had enough. Still thanks to titles like Hitman, The Ray, Impulse, Starman, Young Justice, and of course Kingdom Come DC provided some of the most entertaining and memorable comics of the era. I have many happy memories of kicking back after school with an issue Impulse.
Image meanwhile remarkably managed to survive delays, egotistical splits, late shipping books and an all too inevitable fan backlash to become the respected publisher it is today. Less lucky were Valient/Acclaim, Malibu, Tops, Continuity, Defiant, Broadway and a seemingly never ending list of companies which ultimately crashed and burned, at least half of which somehow involved Jim Shooter. Reading independent comics in the 90s was an often heartbreaking affair. You would stumble onto a new artist, a new character, or a new writer enthusiastically returning to the store week after week awaiting a new issue only to discover months later that either”¦
- The writer and/or artist got snatched up by a bigger publisher and left the title.
- The artist was simply so slow that he made Brian Hitch look like Mark Bagley.
- The book was canceled.
- The publisher went into bankruptcy.
- Marvel bought the company, moved the creative team to other titles, canceled the book, burned it to the ground, and then salted the earth so nothing would grow in it’s place.
The sad thing is, I fell for this every time. I’d go from Shadowhawk, to X-O ManoWar, to Ninjak (Mark Moretti version), to Firearm, to Hepcats, to Ninjak (Kurt Busiek version)”¦ and it never really ended. I imagine a lot of other comic fans shared my pain, which is perhaps why it’s so damned hard to pursued fans to try something new.
It was a fascinating time to be a fan, but alas I would soon learn that boom periods were more often than not followed by busts.
In my Freshmen year of college I stumbled onto a manga anthology called Mixxzine which featured shoujo titles like Magic Knight Rayearth and Sailor Moon. I had a hunch that things were starting to change, but I couldn’t imagine how. Mixxzine wouldn’t be long for this world, but the company that published it renamed Tokyopop would soon change the way we buy and read comics. Tokyopop and Viz not transformed Manga from a niche market, to a multi-million dollar business, they also are largely responsible for the boom in trade paperbacks. Frequent stops by The Gateway, my local comic store of choice would become part of my weekly routine. Then during my Junior and Senior years I began writing weekly articles for the The Daily Athenaeum. I reviewed movies, video games, anime DVDs, even tried my hand at a weekly column on wrestling, but only got around to doing one comics article regarding the first issue of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man.
I would graduate in August 2001, with plans on writing a book of humorous essays modeled after the style of Dave Barry. Alas fate would intervene, and in the wake of 9/11 I suddenly found life a lot less funny. Time Magazine writer Roger Rosenblatt wrote an essay declaring an end to the so-called “Age of Irony.” In newly serious times American humor writing would be devastated, though not in the way that Rosenblatt had imagined. In the build-up to the war in Iraq and occupation that followed we found ourselves bombarded with lies, spin, and hubris. The Daily Show morphed into a real source of news, while the editorial pages of serious papers like The Washington Post began to resemble The Onion. As a society in a few short years we went from discussing last night’s episode of Friends around the water cooler to talking about the latest scandal. When the Vice President of the United States shoots a man in the face, or a former White House domestic policy advisor is arrested for stealing from Target you really don’t need someone to write punch lines.
In the meantime I found myself stunted on a creative front; a writer with little inspiration to write about anything, partially due to family issues. After moving to Barboursville, I practically had to lock myself in my room for a month with a set of Cardcaptor Sakura DVDs in order to shake off my depression.
I finally started writing again and stumbled onto a new comics website called 411 comics. I contacted our beloved “Dark Overlord” Daron Kappauff about a reviewer position. I soon afterwards took over the Marvel News & Views column as well, the guy who was writing the column at the time wasn’t ready for prime time (sorry Jim.) I stayed on the News & Views for about 10 months, before stepping down. This was partially because my efforts to write for 3 sites over-extended me. Partially because I was starting to feel uneasy about the direction that Marvel was taking. Bill Jemas’s run at Marvel was controversial to say the least, but despite his faults he did some brilliant things in terms of recruiting new talent. Furthermore he found ways to attract attention to a project without resorting with tried and true tricks like mega-crossovers or “This issue an Avenger Will Die!”
I moved into fulltime reviewing for the site, doing my best to spread the good word on books like Runaways and Gotham Central. It was fun for awhile, but well”¦ at some point reviewing stopped being fun. Perhaps it might have been sometime back in 2005, shortly after seeing the “Batman Begins” movie, I saw a copy the first War Games trade paperback and was just furious. When it first came out I was irate at DC for pulling the cynical bait-and-switch. However as I thumbed through the trade, I was actually furious that someone would actually buy this fetid storyline. Who would possibly want a Batman storyline revolving around a 16-year-old girl getting tortured with a power drill?!
I reached an epiphany. On our review sites and message boards comics fans are all too quick to blame the writers and editors when something bad happens, but to be brutally honest sometimes we the fans deserve a share of the blame. We say we want new characters, then when Marvel or DC introduces new characters we ignore them. We say we hate a particular write’s work on a title, and then keep buying said title month after month until out of sheer habit. We say there should be more family friendly titles, then treat the Marvel Adventures, and Johnny DC lines like ghettos. A good portion of us don’t know how to react to art styles we’re unfamiliar with us. We often follow “event” storyline and crossovers regardless of quality. We say we should have respectable Super heroines, and then turn around an’ buy a book where Supergirl runs around in a thong.
To quote Pogo Possum “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” All too often, when the creative side of books go wrong, they give us the titles they think the public wants.
There were a lot of things I wanted to say that I just couldn’t express in a simple review. The highs, the lows, the rage, the joy, the laughter and the tears that come with a fandom. So I ultimately decided to put my reviews on hold, and restart Words of Questionable Wisdom, Comics Nexus rotating column which had been put on hold for a long time. It’s not officially “my” column”¦ and maybe sometime I’ll make the jump onto having my own full time column.
But for now I’m content to share my words. Questionable though the wisdom may be”¦