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Comic-Shop Memories: All About Books & Comics (Part I), 1986-87, Phoenix, Ariz.

I don’t know how quickly I was able to discover All About Books & Comics after moving to Arizona, but it was pretty quick, likely within a month or so after arrival.

The shop was farther from home, about 16 miles from home or a half-hour each way in the car, at 535 E. Camelback Road. Like most comics shops, it was in an unremarkable building, albeit one that had bright letters and even characters at times painted on its street-facing windows.

It would be an understatement to say I was impressed when I first walked into the store. Not only was the space large, but it was crammed to the gills with new and back issue comics — more than I’d ever seen in any other shop. And, I quickly learned, there was lots more in the back. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, just ask, and they’d come back shortly with the book you needed in fantastic shape. I have a stone-cold mint copy of X-Men #147 I acquired from the “back room,” and an equally nice copy of X-Men #142.

What impressed me most at first was the back issue selection, which was deep. I checked out the X-Men selection and — just in the box — they had just about every issue back to #143, the end of the John Byrne run. The issues before that were prominently displayed along the walls in mylar sleeves for “exorbitant” prices that ranged from $10 to $30 for most except the earliest issues of the “new” X-Men run. Every other title was stocked just as deeply, if not more so, since those early new X-Men issues were the hottest thing going at the time and there were no reprints. So to read them, you had to get the originals. Classic X-Men had just started and it was going to be a while before it got to the Dark Phoenix issues.

A later printing of the first X-Men trade paperback, with a great cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

I say that with one exception, that applies directly to this visit. While checking out a rack in the corner, I came across the first X-Men trade paperback, published in 1984, collecting issues #129-137, for the cover price of $7.95. I had to have this book, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Luckily, Christmas was coming up, and I told my parents this is what I wanted. So my dad drove me down to the store again, we bought it — I was sure it would be gone by that point — and it went home to be wrapped awaiting Christmas morning. I remember reading it that Christmas Day of 1986 and absolutely loving it. I’ll have to do a whole post on that book another time.

The following May, I graduated high school and was due to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson starting in the fall. My dad was working for a personnel company that had a temp business that served American Express, which had extensive operations in the Phoenix area. So he got me a summer temp job at one of their call centers, answering a national informational toll-free number for the Amex business card. The hotline was advertised in USA Today and other high-profile places, so my job was to answer these calls, answer basic questions about the card, take down the caller’s information and pass it on so that an application would be sent to them, or — if they were a larger company — a sales rep could contact them. It was boring and easy. Most of the calls came from the East Coast, so the afternoons slowed to a crawl and I’d read sci-fi books I borrowed from the library at my desk until I was done at 4:30. The perks included being able to look up cardholder addresses in the computer — few comics folks seemed to have Amex cards, but I never stopped putting their names in the system — and a fantastic deli in the complex called The Duck and Decanter, which is still there and makes the most incredible sandwiches. And it was located at 16th Street and Camelback road, just nine blocks down the street from All About Books & Comics!

So 4:30 would hit and, about twice a week, I’d make All About my first stop. I had this summer job and sufficient financial aid to pay for university, so I felt free to spend a little money on comics. I was in full-on X-Men fandom mode at the time, and so these trips were used primarily to raid those deep back issue bins. I’d grab four or maybe five issues per visit, adding in a few other back issues to series I still had holes in — The New Mutants and Alpha Flight in particular. When I started frequenting All About, my X-Men collection ran back from the current issue (around issue #220) back to about #174, with a couple of older issues in there. By the end of the summer, I’d filled it in all the way back to #141, plus annuals. I’d also brought up to date my run of The New Mutants.

I was really interested at the time in the issues from Dave Cockrum’s second run as artist, which I was reading for the first time. They were very different in tone and style than the stuff that hooked me on X-Men: issues Claremont produced with artists Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., John Byrne and Art Adams. But the more I read the Cockrum stuff, the more I really came to love it fully and completely, faults and all.

I also started trying out more comics, still mainly Marvel. Favorites included: Avengers by Roger Stern, John Buscema and Tom Palmer; West Coast Avengers by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom; and Silver Surfer by Englehart and Marshall Rogers. All About was well stocked, and you could pick up at cover price, new off the racks, the last six or so issues of these titles plus any recent annuals. And new comics cost 75 cents at the time, so it was not terribly expensive to try out six or so issues of a new series.

I recall flipping through a copy of an issue of Batman: Year One and not buying it — which was, again, really dumb. I did later acquire those originals for a very reasonable price.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been getting my subs through Fog Hollow Comics until it closed, and then those subs were transferred to a shop called AAA Best Comics. On Fridays, I would often hit All About and then drive up to Fog Hollow for my subs and then home. It took an hour in the car in Phoenix summer heat — without air conditioning. But this was my thing and I was all in. I almost always went for a swim as soon as I got home to refresh my sweaty self and remember for a moment what it was like to be cool.

The day before I was scheduled to drive down to university with my parents and move into my first apartment with a roommate I had yet to meet, I wanted to get my new comics from All About. It was new comics day, but in those days that was far less of a weekly event than now. The books came in and sat in piles on the counter throughout the afternoon as the staff worked to verify quantities before they could be put on sale. So I waited. For quite a while. I looked through back issue bins. I checked out the small section next to the comics where All About stocked used paperbacks and discount comics. Finally, the new books were freed and I picked up my comics, including X-Men #224, and began the long drive home in the late-afternoon heat.

Cover to X-Men #224 (Dec. 1987). Cover art by Marc Silvestri and Bob Wiacek.

If you’ve ever been to Phoenix in the summer, you know it gets really damn hot. And when the monsoons come, it gets worse because the humidity goes up from nothing to something. This was a monsoon day. I could see the thunderheads building up in the mountains, and was driving toward them as our house was near the foothills of the McDowell mountains. I had sweat through my clothes several times over in my AC-less VW Beetle. And then I got a flat on Hayden Road, just north of Via de Ventura. I pulled off onto a side street and, having no working spare, found a nearby pay phone to call for help. Which took a very long time to come because it was rush hour and our other car was otherwise occupied. So I found some kind of shop to sit in, with my comics, and read them until I got some help and could get home, wash off the day with a dip in the pool and try to prepare for the next day’s events. But I had my comics. That made me happy. And since I had an apartment, I did take with me my collection — about three long boxes at this point.

On to Tucson, and another town of new comics shops.

‘Avengers’ Shows Superheroes No Longer Need Comics

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) soars through the New York skyline in Avengers.
Since I’m writing about the visual effects on Avengers for an upcoming issue of Animation Magazine, I got to see the movie last week at the Disney lot and found the movie to be very, very entertaining. Avengers is a huge movie, with nearly every cent of its reported $220 million budget up there on the big screen, and the deft handling of the story will earn it a huge audience and huge box office to go with it. 
Not only does Avengers successfully adapt the comic book series to the big screen, it actually improves on it. There’s no way that even the the best issue of Avengers ever published can really compete with the movie for the time and money of a modern audience. This poses a problem for those who make, publish, sell and read comics because it removes one of the few great selling points of the medium: That comics can tell stories on a scale and scope that movies cannot. And that is no longer true.
It’s also hard to argue with the math. According to data presented at the 2011 ICV2.com Graphic Novel Conference, the entire comic book industry posted combined sales of single issues and graphic novels in 2010 of $635 million. (This was the last year for which I could find info for — and that revenue was down from 2009. If anyone has more current info, send me the link.) By contrast, Avengers is now expected to cross the $500 million mark by the end of its first weekend playing here in the United States (it opened last week in a number of international markets to huge impact), and seems destined to easily become a billion-dollar grosser just at the box office. That doesn’t include ancillary revenues such as merchandise and licensing, and the long life the movie will have in home video formats from now until the copyright expires under current law in 2107. 
Basically, this one movie will likely generate more than double what the entire comics industry did in 2010. Add in what The Dark Knight Rises is likely to make, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man, and these three movies will lap the comics biz many times over in a single year. 
In the 1980s and 1990s, fans often said that good comic book movies would put the world on notice that the comics they were based on were good enough to check out, and the new readers — and respect — would just roll on in. With the former now reality, the latter looks less and less likely. 
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) fight on in Avengers
After Avengers, what’s left for superhero comics to do? Will anyone who likes this big, bold and fun superhero flick be at all impressed by the latest $4 an issue yak-fest from Brian Michael Bendis? Or want to dig through endless crossovers and convoluted back story? I doubt it. 
Just as I also doubt that Marvel or Disney will in any way alter the way they go about publishing comics these days. It seems that, as long as publishing keeps making money and keeps viable Marvel’s many copyrights and trademarks in the marketplace, they’ll keep publishing comics. 
I’m more concerned about the state of the former, though. I don’t see the market for print comics increasing in any significant way any time soon. The distribution is way too spotty, the cost of a comic too high, and the content of the superhero comics put out by Marvel and DC too narrowly focused on the niche that is the direct market. 
Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) confer on the SHIELD Helicarrier in Avengers.
Digital distribution is the obvious future for pretty much any medium that has not already embraced it. I myself don’t care to read comics on my phone or computer, though I would like to try it on an iPad some day. And while publishers have done a much better job getting comics out there for sale digitally, I think the content is going to remain a big stumbling block for all the reasons I cited above. Just porting over the niche-oriented direct market content won’t attract a mainstream audience. The content must be tailored to the format and the medium, and it appears most comics companies are barely even acknowledging this question, let alone dealing with it.
The comics must be better, much better, than they are now, and tailored to the audience that a movie like Avengers appeals to in order to have the first chance of expanding readership.

Covering ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Chris Evans stars in Captain America: The First Avenger.

I should mention that I occasionally write for Newsarama.com, and wrote for them some articles on Captain America: The First Avenger.

These usually involve attending a junket, which consists of some combination of a press conference, roundtable interviews and one-on-one interviews. Nine times out of ten, these junkets are held at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny in Beverly Hills, so anyone who’s looking for a star sighting in L.A. could do a lot worse than to hang out at the valet station of this hotel. For example, while waiting for my car after the Cap junket, actor Jason Bateman pulled up and hopped out to meet with some publicists working on, I assume, something related to Horrible Bosses or The Change-Up.

Anyway, in addition to getting to see the movie in 3D a week early on the Paramount lot, I showed up at the Four Seasons for a press conference with the filmmakers. On the panel were director Joe Johnston; screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; and Marvel Studios execs Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito. You can read what came of that session here.

That was followed by roundtables, where a hotel room is set up for groups of journalists — usually around a dozen or so at a time — to interview the talent. These are strictly timed and usually very short, forcing the interviewers to jockey for position to ask their questions before your 10 minutes with Chris Evans is up. For Cap, the actors did the roundtables, and we got a few minutes with Evans, the charming Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan. Read what came my group’s short session with Evans here.

Sometimes there even is a takeaway or, more accurately, a gift bag offered to the press. The bag at Cap included an action figure, a collectible cup from Dunkin Donuts, a copy of the soundtrack on CD and a Cap-branded copy of Norton Internet Security 2011 that is useless to me because I only work on Macs. There also are production notes with bios, credits and information on the making of the film for journalists to use as reference.

The third and final piece I wrote from the Cap junket was this review, which most people reading this blog will be able to compare with their own views on the film now that it’s been out in theaters for three weekends.

A lot of sites will take some of these interviews and transcribe them into Q and A style interviews. I’ve tried to do that in the past, but have come to the conclusion that it’s a huge pain in the ass and not nearly as effective as writing a more traditional news story. Writing an article, you can put the appropriate emphasis on what people say in interviews, provide context and get the point across much more clearly. Transcribing an interview is a tedious process that exposes the vast divide between the way people use language when they talk and clear writing. The latter is almost always better, devoid of the filler language most people are never aware is used unless you have to try to write it out. Email interviews are almost always better for quick Q and A’s. Long audio interviews like you’d find in the Comics Journal would require a lot of back and forth, editing and copy editing to get to the published state.

I managed to see Captain America: The First Avenger a second time when my wife and I had the opportunity to leave the house without the baby while some friends babysat for us. I liked the movie more the second time, and even though I enjoyed the 3D on the first viewing, I saw the 2D version the second time and it didn’t affect my opinion of the experience in the slightest.

I think Avengers looks like it’s going to be the blockbuster of 2012, and I’m impressed with how well Marvel Studios has pulled off this big plan to build to it, starting way back with the first Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. I liked Thor okay and thought X-Men: First Class was terrific, so the summer’s been good for Marvel movies.

I was less impressed with Green Lantern, which was never obviously terrible but was so formulaic in the way it told the origin story and so rigidly followed the conventions of superhero movies that it just never added up to anything memorable. Green Lantern 2 needs to go in a different direction, so I suggest they reduce Hal Jordan to a cameo and make the movie about Guy Gardner, John Stewart and G’Nort. It most likely would tank at the box office, but at least people would have a reaction of some kind to what’s on the screen, even it’s just that two of those three characters are annoying as hell.

Fixing the X-Men: Shorter, crazier stories based in the real-world

X-Men has been thoroughly dethroned as the top franchise in comics, replaced in sales and popularity among superheroes by Green Lantern, the Avengers and Batman. Sales are down, interest is down and the X-Men line is just kind of dismissed by bloggers and podcasters as a property coasting on past successes more than one that innovates, entertains and is a commercial success.

No one who’s read this blog or my book or spoken to me about it at a con or online will mistake me for anything other than a big fan of the X-Men. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a ton of crappy X-Men comics have been published over the life of the title. But I do think the X-Men stands apart from pretty much every other superhero out there because its concept is capable of delivering a great deal more emotional depth. X-Men is, at heart, a science fiction concept that features many conventions of the superhero genre. You could do X-Men without code names, costumes, secret identities and crime-fighting elements that define most superheroes. But by making the X-Men mutants — granted powers by accident of birth — and turning them into a race or even a class of potentially dangerous people pitted against normal humans, X-Men has a greater potential to become something deeper and more significant than the superpowered cops commonly found in Avengers or Green Lantern.

The X-Men’s current decline easily began the moment Grant Morrison left New X-Men, ending the last great run of innovation the title has seen. That was 2004, and was followed in 2005 by Marvel placing renewed emphasis on the Avengers, beginning its ascension to the top of the charts starting with Avengers: Disassembled and The New Avengers. I think there were a lot of reasons for this shift, but the most interesting was that also was about the time that Marvel began planning to make its own movies. With the X-Men movies rights and profits locked up at Fox indefinitely, it simply makes sense for Marvel to put all its efforts into building up the Avengers into the most recognizable and profitable brand.

I dropped all Avengers books shortly after the recent relaunch because I think writer Brian Michael Bendis’ style has grown increasingly stale and lazy. How long can you quote movies from the 1980s in a pastiche of David Mamet and Kevin Smith before people stop calling it brilliant? How many issues can you write where superheroes sit around eating and drinking coffee and chatting about nothing while all the action happens off-panel? Bendis is on track to find out.

The X-Men books these days are not horrible, but they’re not great either. What they lack more than anything is the kind of wild energy and the constant sense of elevating danger that marked the best days of the series. The former is a problem that afflicts most comics these days, while the latter stems from the need for the X-Men metaphor to evolve and reflect the nature of being an outsider.

So how to fix that? I have some ideas:

Stop writing comics like they’re movies or TV shows and starting writing them like they’re comic books again.

This is a problem that affects most mainstream comics these days. It’s not uncommon for dialog scenes in superhero comics to run two or three pages, with four or five panels per page. This works for Tommy Schlamme on The West Wing, but in comics, it is extremely boring. Flipping through the current arc of The Uncanny X-Men, “Quarantine,” there’s a LOT of talking. The first issue, #530, starts with two pages of Emma talking to Kitty, followed by a page of almost-naked Emma talking to Scott, followed by three pages of Anole talking about getting sick, a page of Northstar and Dazzler having dinner, two pages of The Collective talking and one of them tearing up a convenience store, followed by a super-exciting two-page press conference, and on and on. Boring.

Similarly, a couple of issues later we get a big fight between Emma and Sebastian Shaw, while Northstar et al. are fighting the Collective in San Francisco. Despite most of that issue, #532, featuring some kind of action, these sequences still lack energy and fail to generate any kind of excitement. I think a lot of it comes from Land’s heavy reliance on photo reference. In theory, photos should make good starting points for comic panels, but in practice the artists who rely on photo reference produce work that looks stiff, or even frozen. Good comic art has a natural look and the storytelling flows from panel to panel and page to page. I don’t think you’ll ever get that flow cobbling together panels based on pictures from Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and the Victoria’s Secret catalog.

In movies and TV, time is valuable. In comics, it’s space. And wasting so much space and so many pages on endless dialog and stilted action simply runs counter to the strengths of comics as a medium. Add in the stretching out of storylines over four or six issues, which often ship late, and the number of people who wait for collected editions to read and it’s almost impossible to avoid material that feels stilted, thin and stretched beyond its limits. At a time when communication is speeding up and people are abandoning short forms of communication like email and blog posts for even shorter and quicker hits offered by Twitter and Facebook, this is an even worse approach. I don’t know why comics aren’t more focused on making each issue, each episode as jam-packed full of cool stuff as they possible can rather than boring everyone to death with decompressed, to-be-continued and irrelevant material.

Next: be subversive. I think good comics are a lot like good rock ‘n’ roll (or any good art): it must challenge the reader in some way. In comics’ case, that usually means being subversive in some ways. X-Men was always good at that, featuring characters who are always on the outside of society looking in. It’s a great premise for criticizing just about any aspect of society. And looking at the state of the world today, there is no shortage of things to criticize. However, X-Men in the post-Morrison years has been astonishingly conservative, sticking to an interpretation of the mutants and their relationship with society that fails to evolve and remains exceedingly safe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. Both DC and Marvel’s books have felt increasingly like the products of a corporation in recent years, shedding the personalities that the artists and writers used to bring to them. It often feels like I’m not reading a comic anymore, but a marketing plan or press kit takeaway.

The antidote to this has to be taking some chances with X-Men stories, going beyond what’s been established in the past 48 years of comic books and take a few digs at society. The good news is there is no shortage of conflict in the world right now — economic, political, religious, racial — X-Men could easily tap into. The bad news is that Marvel is a big corporation and can’t be expected to court the kind of controversy subversive comics would bring.

So if anyone were to ask me what could be done to fix the X-Men comics, here’s what I would do.

  • Shorter, punchier storylines. Throw lots of strange ideas in there and see what sticks.
  • Get the X-Men off Utopia. Putting all these characters on a fake island where all they have to do is talk to each other has turned out to be deadly dull. This is a book that needs to connect with the real world, and they can’t do that on Utopia.
  • Return a sense of dread to the book. Claremont did this extremely well, by making mutants powerful enough that it was credible for normal humans to hate and fear them. He also had an ear for the kinds of arguments used in the media at the time to discuss divisive issues and shrewdly injected imagery from the Holocaust to great effect.
  • Tap into real world issues. The Holocaust imagery evoked a universal and undeniable sense of fear and horror in to the X-Men that stood in for a number of different interpretations of the mutant metaphor. It could be about race, it could be about religion, it could be about just being an outsider or it could be about being gay. For too long — ever since Claremont left in 1991 — X-Men has relied a little too much on the homosexual interpretation. A lot of this became more obvious for many folks after Bryan Singer’s movies. But gay rights have come a long way in the last 20 years, and no longer carries the kind of stigma it did in the 1980s and even in the 1990s. With the shrill political, cultural and religious environment found in the United States, there’s lots of ways to move beyond the Holocaust imagery and find new threats for the mutants based on real-life stuff that’s extremely compelling.
  • Put the X-Men in direct conflict with humanity. The idea of an all-out war between humans and mutants has been inherent in the concept from the start. It’s been 48 years since X-Men #1 — isn’t it time we saw this at long last? There’s enough X-books, and I could see this as a great new status quo for the X-Men for the next several years.

I’d love to hear what other fans have to say — fire away in the comments if you’re so inclined.

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