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Comic-Shop Memories: Fantasy Comics, 1990-91, Tucson, Ariz., Part 2

Things changed again for me in in the autumn of 1990. In pursuing my journalism career, I began working as a reporter for the the college newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat. I worked three days a week at the Wildcat, and my beat was the University Medical Center, and general assignment.

This took up a lot of my time and instantly expanded my social circle from almost nothing to an entire newsroom of like-minded people. My first published article was about students who worked as lifeguards at one of the pools and were suddenly laid off despite new pools opening up in a new recreation and sports center. I wrote about some of the research being done at UMC, covered some student health issues, and did a fair bit of general assignment stuff on whatever needed to be covered.

Boy, was it fun. Very hard, at times, but a lot of fun.

It also cut into my comics time. I didn’t mind so much — it was good to have those new experiences. I had gone back to buying from Fantasy Comics over on Campbell Avenue. I was enjoying the increasing energy in the overall superhero field with the rise of the artists who would soon form Image Comics, and started to branch out more into other types of comics.

I already mentioned I was digging Shade the Changing Man by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo. This was before Vertigo was its own imprint. But the “mature readers” section of DC was already pretty unified, as it was all under the leadership of Karen Berger. I started checking out the other titles from this corner that were mentioned in the Shade letters column. Two of them made an immediate impact: Hellblazer and The Sandman.

I saw the ads for the new writer taking over Hellblazer with issue #41 (May 1991), a writer named Garth Ennis. The ads made clear that the series’ protagonist, John Constantine, had lung cancer from smoking in almost every single panel he’d ever appeared in. The art looked cool, so I picked up that first issue and liked it.

But what really blew me away was the second issue, Hellblazer #42 (June 1991), and it remains to this day one of my favorite single issues ever of a comic book.

Hellblazer #42 (June 1991)
Cover art by Tom Canty.

This story, titled “A Drop of the Hard Stuff,” has cancer-stricken Constantine heading to Ireland to seek the help of his old pal, Brendan, who lived in a lighthouse with dark-haired beauty Kit and dabbled in magic himself. Brendan loved to drink, and always had time for a pint of stout, glass of whiskey, or goblet of wine.

After catching up and getting pleasantly sloshed, Constantine tells Brendan he’s got cancer and he was hoping that his old pal might know a spell that would help him out of this spot. Brendan replies by saying he was hoping John would be able to help him in the same way, though for him it’s liver cancer, and he’s got very little time left.

So they decide to get completely sloshed, and Brendan takes John down to the cellar of the lighthouse where there’s a pool of holy water blessed by St. Patrick himself. He lights a candle, casts a spell — and turns the holy water into stout beer. John and Brendan start drinking it, and Brendan reveals that he made a deal with the devil to be able to acquire and enjoy the greatest life of drink known to man, in exchange, of course, for Brendan’s soul. Brendan says he tried to get one over on the old man by stipulating that his soul must be claimed by midnight on the day he dies or it goes free.

Brendan spends his final few hours with John, who gets up to leave noting it’s almost midnight. At the top of the stairs, he comes face to face with the devil himself, who’s come to claim Brendan’s soul. John figures he owes it to his pal to try to delay him until midnight, so he offers the devil a drink, saying that doing so would put all Brendan’s drinking adventures to shame. The devil likes this and agrees. John fills two pints of Guinness from the well, they say cheers, and each take a deep drink.

“So that’s what he was up to! Magic stout …” says the devil.

“Yup,” says John. “As long as that candle burns it keeps it from turning back into holy water.”

The devil panics, John smiles, and kicks over the table with the candle and it goes out. The devil screams in pain. John lights a cig and pushes the devil into the pool of holy water, and the devil dissolves in a hideous howl.

The clock strikes midnight. John’s saved his pal, but now he knows for sure he must do anything he can to avoid dying and ending up in hell because he’ll have to pay big time for this offense.

I was so completely hooked by this story, I began to buy every back issue of Hellblazer I could find. The previous issues, mostly written by Jamie Delano and drawn by the likes of Mark Buckingham and Richard Piers Rayner, were quite different, but unlike anything else I had ever read and quite fascinating. Once I figured out stout was Guinness, it became my adult beverage of choice.

Then there’s The Sandman. As I’m writing this, the first season of the Netflix series adapting the first two major arcs of the comic has just debuted. I’ve seen the first episode and adored it, and I can’t wait to see the rest of season one and what’s coming up in season two.

The first issues I bought of the comic book was The Sandman #22 (Jan. 1991) and #23 (Feb. 1991). This was the beginning of “The Season of Mists” storyline, with art by Kelley Jones and script, of course, by Neil Gaiman. I distinctly remember the literary quality of this comic stood in stark contrast to anything else I had read before, even the likes of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. I quickly scored back issues through #16 at Ken Strack’s AAA Best Comics in Phoenix, and in those issues found two stories that made me a forever fan of The Sandman – and comics as a medium.

The Sandman #17 (July 1990)
Cover art by Dave McKean

The first was “Calliope,” in The Sandman #17 (July 1990). This was one of Gaiman’s single-issue stories and it was devastatingly good. The story followed Richard Madoc, a novelist with writer’s block who acquires a real life muse named Calliope. Her services are not acquired freely — he rapes her to get the inspiration that not only undoes his writer’s block, but fuels his rise to literary and cultural stardom unknown in modern culture. Calliope pleads with Morpheus in a dream to help free her — they had one been intimate. The Sandman appears before Madoc and makes his case. But when the writer complains that he’d have no ideas without her, Morpheus unleashes his anger and fills the writer’s mind with so many ideas it drives him mad. He frees Calliope, and the rush of ideas fades away to nothing at all. This was all in 22 pages with fantastic art, and made a huge impression on me.

The Sandman #19 (Sept. 1990)
Cover art by Dave McKean

The other was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in The Sandman #19 (Sept. 1990). This is one of the most famous issues of the series, as William Shakespeare and his troupe perform the first of two plays commissioned by Morpheus for a unique audience — the faery folk the play itself portrays as a way to ensure they are never forgotten. It’s clever and engaging beyond words, with delightful, delicate and expressive art by Charles Vess.

I hope both episodes are adapted for season two of the Netflix show, even though I know that even the greatest adaptation could never equal the stature of the comics in my mind.

The Sandman was one of the first comics I set out to read trade paperbacks on. This is because the back issue prices were already pretty high. There already was The Doll’s House, which collected issues #8-16 — a steal at $12.95.

The Sandman: The Doll’s House trade paperback
Cover by Dave McKean

I remember looking forward to buying the trade paperback of the earlier issues, and picking up a copy at Fantasy Comics on the day it came out. Preludes & Nocturnes collected issues 1-8 of The Sandman, and did not disappoint. (Yes, both editions included issue 8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduced Death. At the time, I’m sure it made sense to kick off The Doll’s House with that terrific story, but it more correctly belongs as the epilogue to Preludes.)

Back and front covers to The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Cover art by Dave McKean.

In direct opposition to pre-Vertigo DC comics was the explosion of energy new artists were bringing to mainstream Marvel and DC superhero comics.

The X-Men were top of the heap at Marvel, with Jim Lee and his Homage Studios mates taking over the art chores on The Uncanny X-Men, starting with issues #267. The following issue, #268, which came out in early fall of 1990 was a huge jolt of excitement with Lee drawing a single-issue tale by regular scribe Chris Claremont that alternated between an 1940s meeting between Captain America and Logan, and a present-day tale involving Logan, Jubilee and Psylocke helping out the Black Widow.

The Uncanny X-Men #268 (Late Sept. 1990)
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams

That was followed up by the return of Rogue in The Uncanny X-Men #269. Always a favorite, Rogue had vanished into the Siege Perilous some 20 issues before and just now returned. She ended up in the Savage Land, just getting by on her own — in a wonderfully revealing torn up costume that fueled the imagination of many a male reader. She runs head to head in her mind with Carol Danvers, and comes out face to face with Magneto.

The Uncanny X-Men #269 (Oct. 1990)
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams

The Extinction Agenda crossover was next. Compared to today’s crossovers, this was a modest affair — it ran a mere nine issues, three each for X-Men, X-Factor and The New Mutants.

But it was Lee on X-Men that drew everyone’s attention and jump-started sales to a new level. I remember being home at my parents’ house that spring with a cold. My mom was driving past AAA Best and stopped in to get some comics. Ken knew who I was, and my mom came home with copies of Superman #54 and the double-sized Jim Lee glory of The Uncanny X-Men #275 with a gatefold cover.

Things were building now toward the relaunches that defined the summer of 1991. Louise Simonson dropped off of The New Mutants, and Rob Liefeld instantly began transforming it into X-Force. Whilce Portacio took over X-Factor and, with Chris Claremont scripting, finally resolved the identity of Cable and set up the eventual return of the original X-Men to the team.

One of the nice thing about comics at the time was they were still cheap. Most Marvel and DC comics cost $1, and most stores were moving lots and lots of copies of Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man and other top heroes. Batman books especially were doing well, with sales strong across the board two years after the Tim Burton movie. We now awaited the sequel, which was due in 1992.

Speculation also was coming into play in a more obvious way. There had for years been people buying multiple copies of certain hot comics as they came out in the expectation that they would increase in value. While the vast majority of Marvel and DC back issues were common and relatively cheap in the 1980s, the influx of both readers and speculators started to have an effect. Once-common back issues became a bit harder to find, and prices started to edge up a bit. DC and Marvel both had hits with multiple covers on Legends of the Dark Knight and Spider-Man, and had now bought into this promotional tool wholeheartedly with X-Force #1 and X-Men #1, coming in the summer of 1991.

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1990, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 2

A lot changed at the end of my third year at University of Arizona. My family was living in Phoenix, just off North 19th Avenue, way up north of West Bell Road. I don’t remember how, but I landed a summer job at a nearby Minit Lube. I mostly took service orders from cars that drove up, squeegeed windows, and vacuumed the floor mats.

Everyone has a job they survive. This was mine. The people were nice, and that was the best part of it. This was an open-air, drive-through oil change place. That meant you were not working indoors, where the Arizona summer temps could be tempered with air-conditioning. The boss was generous with using petty cash to get us Gatorade, water, or sodas from the Circle K next door several times a day to help us avoid dehydration, so that was nice. It paid slightly more than minimum wage — about $4 and change per hour.

But this was an especially cruel summer. On June 26, 1990, the temperature in Phoenix set a record: 126 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s 52 degrees Celsius for those of you who live outside the U.S. I was not working that day. I was home, with the shades drawn, the AC on, cold drinks in the fridge, watching movies on VHS in the dark.

At one point, I remembered I had left several music cassettes in my car and decided to save them. I put on flip-flops, grabbed my keys, and went out to the car. I opened the door and quickly grabbed the hot tapes, pulling my shirt out like an apron to carry them indoors. As I was walking back to the front door, I thought I had stepped in some gum. Looking down, I saw my flip flops were melting on the concrete driveway. I hurried inside and did not re-emerge until the rotation of the Earth had put a merciful end to the sun’s daily punishment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds"
One of the best TV cliffhangers of all time. It was uncertain that Patrick Stewart was coming back, so this really could have gone a number of different ways.

A few weeks before that, my Star Trek fandom hit new heights with the broadcast of the third-season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation: “The Best of Both Worlds.” What a stunner! The third season had really taken off, and the show was now firmly boldly going into new territory in exciting, well-crafted and thoughtful ways. I miss it.

I remember catching early that summer a couple episodes of The Flash on CBS, which clearly took a lot of visual inspiration from the Tim Burton Batman movie success of the year before. It didn’t click with me, and was canceled at that point after only one season.

Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy.
Don’t have much to say about this movie, other than it seemed like a business venture more than a creative one.

In theaters, there was Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. This movie was very hyped in a clear attempt to emulate the success, again, of Batman. The miscalculation was in not realizing that Dick Tracy hadn’t been a character people cared about for decades at that point. There had been no resurgence of interest, or reframing of the character for the times, as Batman had gotten from The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. It was just an old comic strip, and the only strip back then that had any kind of active audience was Calvin and Hobbes.

Dick Tracy could have overcome that if the movie was better, but it wasn’t. It was a bunch of old actors putting on silly makeup to turn an old comic strip no one read anymore into a movie that no one really ended up caring much about. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, though I do have a DVD somewhere of it.

Back to the Future, Part III
I like Back to the Future, Part III a lot more than Part II.

Other cool stuff going on that summer included the release of Back to the Future, Part III, which prompted a thorough review on my part of the previous two films in that series. In the end, only the first is a really great film, but the others are at least entertaining.

Less interesting was Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Not at all up to the standards of the first one — a movie series of true diminishing returns.

It was Spider-Man #1 (Aug. 1990) that drew me back to AAA Best Comics. I had a day off work the day the issue came out, June 19, 1990, and decided to head over to Ken Strack’s shop to pick up a copy. He had moved down the street — he was always on North Seventh Street — into a slightly larger space.

He had ordered plenty of copies, and I picked up two each of the green cover and the silver cover, and one each of the green bagged edition and the black bagged edition. I believe the bagged editions are still unopened in my collection somewhere.

I distinctly remember Ken raving about a new DC series called Shade the Changing Man. The first issue was recently out, and he talked up the striking Chris Bachalo art. I can’t remember if he gave it to me or if I paid for it, but I found myself agreeing with him that it was cool, and coming back for the next issue for at least the next two or three years.

It was overall a fun time to be reading comics, which still were cheap. Most DC and Marvel series cost $1 per issue, which made it easy to buy a stack of new, untried books for not a lot of money.

Marvel had this new-series program, where they introduced a new first issue each month for the first half of 1990. Among them were Ghost Rider, the John Byrne She-Hulk, The New Warriors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Byrne’s Namor: The Sub-Mariner, and McFarlane’s Spider-Man.

I was in on Spider-Man and Namor. The others, for whatever reason, struck no nerve with me. With Namor, the appeal was the art. Byrne was using duotone paper that gave his work a new element. And he had some good ideas for the character that made for a really fun read, namely having Namor forage lost treasure from the ocean floor to turn himself into a captain of industry.

I was still reading comics that summer. I recall really enjoying the various Batman and Star Trek series.

X-Men was in an unusual but still very interesting place. In the main X-Men title, writer Chris Claremont split up the team after Inferno and scattered them across the world. Many found completely new identities, with older characters fading away and new ones, as always, coming in. There were a lot of single-issue stories, with the overarching story building in the background — sometimes so deeply, it wasn’t clear to the reader, or even perhaps to Claremont himself, where things were going and how. These were the last Marc Silvestri issues, which were followed by a series of fill-in artists awaiting the inevitable arrival of heir apparent Jim Lee later in the year.

Fans were impatient with this approach to X-Men.

I recall reading in a copy of the Comics Buyers Guide a letter from a fan who answered another fan’s letter asking what the hell was going on in X-Men. The reply letter ended with a plea to Claremont to return to more conventional comic book storytelling, and a note from the CBG editors stating they paid the letter writer a small fee for all the work he put into answering the question.

The Uncanny X-Men #266 (Late Aug. 1990). The first chronological appearance of Gambit, though X-Men Annual #14 (1990) was released first.

The introduction of Gambit was much hyped, though the execution of it was a mess. It took a while for the comics to find some space in which to convey anything about him that wasn’t superficial. And I remember reading that Days of Future Present crossover between the Fantastic Four, The New Mutants, X-Factor and X-Men annuals, and being flat out unable to make sense of it. There was some nice Art Adams art in the X-Men episode, though.

The other X-Men titles seemed like they were in a bit of another universe. Excalibur’s Cross-Time Caper seemed to go off the rails a bit as Alan Davis wasn’t drawing every issue and there were even a few writing fill-ins for Claremont. The momentum, clarity and humor the book had in its earlier days burned off quickly and the title soon was passed around the Marvel office like a hot potato.

The same was true for Wolverine. After the solid but underwhelming arc by Archie Goodwin, John Byrne and Klaus Janson, there were fill-ins galore with a variety of artists and writers. And these issues came out while the book was published twice monthly in the summer months. These were supposed to be highlight issues, top stuff meant to drive traffic into comics shops. And it was far from special material.

In Louise Simonson’s corner, X-Factor had been a bit lost since Inferno, and in 1990 also was rotating through a series of fill-in artists drawing stories that at best were treading ground. I understand there were plans for Cyclops and Marvel Girl to finally marry and be parents to baby Nathan, but soon crossovers and changes in creative direction would push back that actually happening for years.

I had stopped reading The New Mutants shortly after Inferno. But Ken recommended issue #93 to me, and I was indeed impressed at Rob Liefeld’s more testosterone-driven take on these characters. That issue had Wolverine both inside and on the cover fighting Cable. I quickly put together the issues I had missed, which was very easy — I paid $3 for issue #87, which is now a key from that time.

The New Mutants #93 (Sept. 1990). Art by Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane.

As up and down as Marvel was, DC was even more more hit and miss. I tried Green Lantern, with the original Emerald Dawn series, followed by a regular title. This character just didn’t work for me. It was the same with Lobo. Everyone went ape-shit crazy for this character, but it was all one joke to me, and not one I found funny at the time.

I did very much like Justice League, which at the time was the brainchild of J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, and really quite funny.

Another title Ken recommended to me was Doom Patrol, by Grant Morrison. This was my first Morrison book, and it immediately stood out as something different, daring, and fun to read. I came on with issue #32, and it was years before I filled in Morrison’s run back to #19. But I bought every issue going forward and really enjoyed that book.

It was a quiet summer, to be honest. I was looking forward to going back to university in the fall, mostly because I had been hired as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and was really excited to be a part of that team and to finally get some real experience in my chosen field of study.

For comics, it was in some ways the quiet before the storm.

These books were still enjoyable and worth buying while they were so cheap. But they also weren’t really satisfying, either.

When the bottom didn’t fall out after the year of the Batman movie, it felt like there was an explosion waiting to happen. That there were new heights to reach. That all it would take was the right book at the right moment, and comics would vault out of the shadows and into the mainstream. The signs were there, with an influx of brash boys in comics shops wondering aloud why Batman doesn’t use guns, or why Marvel doesn’t make Todd McFarlane draw Wolverine, or expressing in plainly lustful language their admiration for Jim Lee’s latest rendering of a swimsuit-clad Psylocke.

All things in their time.

Jim Lee Psylocke pinup from Marvel Illustrated: Swimsuit Issue (1991). Yes, such things existed.

Comics Letters Pages, Part 3

In 1990, with few journalism classes under my belt, I decided to write a letter good enough to get published in a comics letters page.

I loved the letters columns in DC’s Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think editor Bob Greenberger did the most professional, fun and informative letters columns I’ve ever seen. Not only was this letter column the best place to discuss the comic, but for Trek in general.

I wrote off one letter, commenting on Star Trek #5 (Feb. 1990). And another on the following issue.

The first was printed in Star Trek #9 (June 1990).

Star Trek #9 letters page.
Letters column for Star Trek #9 (June 1990)

And the second letter showed up in the following issue.

Star Trek #10 letters page.
Letters page to Star Trek #10 (July 1990).

I wanted to write a serious letter. I had just read and had some criticisms of Wolverine #25 (June 1990), which had a spiffy Jim Lee cover. This is a fill-in issue written by Jo Duffy and drawn by John Buscema. In it, an old friend of Logan’s named Morrow calls in a debt. He needs Wolverine to protect his son, Gabriel, during the climactic battle of a gang war. Logan reluctantly accepts. He tells Gabriel a story about a boy lost in the Canadian wilderness who is raised by a pack of, uh, wolverines. That inspires Gabriel to “help out” when the gang war comes home, allowing Logan to decide the battle in Morrow’s favor.

I really disliked the story at the time. Wolverine had become quite the success as a solo character and the number of writers now contributing to his ongoing story had grown far beyond the vision of longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont.

Plenty of interviews quoted Claremont as saying he saw Logan as a man of mystery. It was better to never know his origin because no story could measure up. (See 2001’s six-issue Origin series for proof.) I agreed with Claremont, and therefore disliked this story.

And raised by wolverines? Really? I am a big fan of Jo Duffy’s work, but this was goofy.

So, I wrote up a letter, mailed it and — to my surprise —  it saw print in the pages of Wolverine #31 (Late Sept. 1990). My letter was printed without editing — and there was a response from the editors!

Wolverine #31 letters page
Letters page to Wolverine #31 (Late Sept. 1990).

And then my letter got a response two issues later.

Wolverine #33 letters page.
Check out the second letter. This is the letters page from Wolverine #33 (Nov. 1990)

Two issues after that one, there was another reference to my letter.

Wolverine #35 letters page.
This time, it’s the last letter that replies to mine. Letters page from Wolverine #35 (Jan. 1991)

I didn’t write more letters until after I had graduated and had started a career as a newspaper editor.

It was this period when I could finally afford to subscribe to the Comics Buyers Guide, and its weekly letter column was a real highlight. I was deeply into comics now that I could afford them to some degree. I even wrote a few articles about them at the newspaper, and made my first trek to San Diego Comic-Con in 1993.

Copies of those issues of CBG my letters appeared in are long gone, but I do have a couple of printouts I made before sending them.

Here’s the first, which discusses the issue of ratings systems for comics that was controversial in 1994, the era of the V-chip!

Letter to CBG, May 26, 1994, page 1
Letter to CBG, May 26, 1994, page 2

Amazingly, I don’t cringe when I read that, and I still mostly agree with what I said.

And here’s another letter, from 1997, that’s more critical of CBG and the industry as a whole.

Letter to CBG, Sept. 3, 1997, page 1
Letter to CBG, Sept. 3, 1997, page 2

I received the following reply from Peter David, though I don’t recall exactly what I wrote in the letter he was replying to.

I had a couple of comics creators or publishers send me samples of their work. In particular, I remember receiving copies of an indy black-and-white comic called Hilly Rose from B.C. Boyer. It had a Pogo/Bone vibe to it, and I ordered subsequent issues after liking what Boyer had sent.

Letter from B.C. Boyer, circa 1996.

Those also were the early days of the internet, and like everyone else, I used my Macintosh Performa 630CD to log on to America Online and check out its comic book areas.

If you weren’t around in those days, AOL charged a monthly fee of something like $12, and that got you, say, five hours of connection time. Once you went over that five hour limit, they started charging you by the minute. And it quickly became clear that five hours a month was nothing, and it only took a few big bills to switch to an ISP that charged only a flat rate.

Anyway, I was in a comics group when someone from Dark Horse Comics was asking for volunteers to read a new first issue and write a letter about it so they had some letters to put into that first issue. I immediately signed up, and soon a package from Dark Horse arrived with black and white copies of a comic called Heartbreakers, by Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan.

Letter from Jamie S. Rich, Jan. 15, 1996.

I wrote up a letter, sent it back, and it was published in that first issue.

Heartbreakers #1 letters page.
Letters page from Heartbreakers #1 (April 1996).
Cover to Heartbreakers #1 (April 1996).
Art by Paul Guinan and Tony Akins.

A number of years later, I met Anina and Paul at a dinner a mutual friend threw at Comic-Con. I told them this story and we all had a laugh. Stopping by their booth the next day, Anina had a copy of that comic on the table and I was able to show her the letter.

I forget exactly when letters columns faded away from most comic books, but I miss them. Even when they crop up these days, they lack the kind of thoughtful missives and discussion that turned up back then.

Comics Letters Pages, Part 2

Cover to Avengers #289
The cover to Avengers #289 (March 1988). Art by John Buscema and Tom Palmer.

It was 1985 when I returned to comics reading and collecting. I still dug the comics letters pages.

The letters in Marvel’s Star Wars series — the book that got me into the hobby — were solid. I remember seeing in issue #103 that the next issue was coming in 60 days, instead of the usual 30. I thought it was a typo. The two month wait revealed the book’s schedule had been demoted to bimonthly. Not long after that, the series was canceled.

I also read V, which DC published based on the TV miniseries and then regular series. The original miniseries was terrific, and the followup, V: The Final Battle, was five-sixths great — the ending left a lot to be desired. The weekly TV series was a disaster and put out of its misery after one season. But I really wanted the show to succeed and stuck with it. There was nothing else sci-fi related on TV. If you liked that stuff, V was it.

The comic book version ran 18 issues — long past the series’ cancellation. And it had its high points: The covers by Jerry Bingham were terrific. Carmine Infantino penciled the series and his art had many of the same qualities I had come to like from his Star Wars run. And the letters pages also were lively, with lots of fans writing in and good engagement from the editor, Bob Greenberger. More on him later.

Cover to X-Men Annual #10 (1986). Art by Arthur Adams.

I wrote one fannish letter to X-Men editor Ann Nocenti and writer Chris Claremont in autumn 1986, after we had moved to Arizona. I was trying to work out the continuity of the Mutant Massacre storyline, and where X-Men Annual #10 occurred in the run. I’m still not clear on that point, but I’m also glad they didn’t publish it.

A year later, I was a student at the University of Arizona. My initial major was general business, mostly because I had to pick something and had no idea what else to choose.

In Canada, I had been a strong science and math student. But my interest in those subjects was frustrated by the way they were taught at the Arizona high school where I finished my diploma, and in my freshman year at university.

I had intended to take calculus in high school in Alberta, but Arizona — to no one’s surprise — lacked that option. In university, it was taught in an auditorium with 600 freshmen. The weekly session with a teaching assistant was not helpful. Teaching my group was a thick accented man unskilled at — and apparently uninterested in — helping us make sense of the topic.

Buying a set of notes for the class from a local copy shop, I basically re-took the class at home in the last weeks before the final. I got an A, but none of it stuck, and I was already looking at other interests.

I enjoyed being a university student, and liked taking classes on topics as diverse as psychology, world literature, and military history. Few of the other students in my classes, however, seemed to have any real interest in learning about these things. They loved the social scene, but classes were merely tolerated. They were something to get through on the way to the degree and job that would afford them the flashy car they wanted. It was disheartening to see so many people just going through the motions and failing to take an interest of any kind in the amazing world we live in and the opportunity we had as students to learn so much about it.

I also had always liked current affairs, history, and politics. In school, we had studied the history and culture of Canada, obviously, but also places like Africa, India and China. We also studied the industrial revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Russian Revolution. Given the threat of global thermonuclear war, the latter fascinated me as much as it scared me. For more than a year after watching “The Day After,” I had to distract my mind with the radio to fall asleep each night.

At university, I took advantage of being a student to read lots of newspapers, magazines and books I had never had access to before. I often stayed up late to watch Nightline, with Ted Koppel. That was a great show, though I always wished he had more time to discuss things — an hour instead of a half.

All this inspired me to put more effort into my writing at college and the results were immediate — good grades and some very flattering compliments from teachers. That had never happened before. I also was really enjoying it, following topics down a rabbit hole and using the power of revision to refine ideas. It was at minimum very satisfying, and more often than not a lot of fun.

I also was reading as many comics as I could get my hands on. I was particularly fond of the X-Men titles and the writing of Chris Claremont. He had a strong style, but he also told complicated stories and defined his characters in ways other comics and books did not. I was a fan. It made me think that one day I could do something related to comics. Maybe.

I would read the Writer’s Market — a guide to publications that buy freelance work — in the university bookstore. It reported at the time that top talent at Marvel earned six-figure incomes. That seemed unreal to me.

But a career related to comics just didn’t seem like a viable goal. And certainly not a serious one you could confess in Tucson, Arizona, in 1987.

All of this came together in the pages of Avengers #289, which came out in November 1987. The book’s editor, Mark Gruenwald, had a series of columns he wrote, called Mark’s Remarks, that ran in the titles he edited. And in this one, he was talking about what it takes to be an editor at a company like Marvel. He wrote that comics require highly structured writing, like journalism. So knowing something about journalism was helpful. Read the whole thing here, especially section 3:

The Mark’s Remarks column from the letters page of Avengers #289.

That stuck with me. It definitely played a role in my decision to switch my major to journalism. It wasn’t the biggest or most important reason. I had noticed in reading so many publications of all types that the people who worked on them seemed to really enjoy what they did, and that they felt it was important and worthy work. And that seemed like the right reason to point myself in that direction.

That choice was the right one for me. And I’ll never forget that moment of clarity, of the fuse that led to that decision being lit by reading that column.

I never had a chance to meet Mark Gruenwald, who died unexpectedly at the age of 43, in 1996. But I owe him at least a thanks for some simple words of encouragement. It’s amazing what a little of that can do — most people hear so little of it.

Next: Writing letters that actually got printed!

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.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fog Hollow Comics, Phoenix, Ariz., 1986-87

Old Town Scottsdale is the kind of place where tourists like to overpay for snakeskin cowboy boots, extra-hot salsa, cheap turquoise jewelry and elaborate Kachina dolls. On the plus side, you can just as easily find some really good tacos and cold Mexican beer.

My family moved Oct. 2, 1986, to Scottsdale, Arizona. We lived in a home in what was then the north edge of town, somewhere between Shea Boulevard and Cactus Road, just west of 92nd Street. My comics collection at the time fit in one long box.

Of course, the first thing I did was consult the phone book for a nearby comics shop, finding several listings but none nearby. The first one I found and the closest was Fog Hollow Comics, located at 3215 E. Thunderbird Road, almost nine miles away. (Thanks to the AZFandom.org folks for recalling its name!) It’s still today an 18 minute drive, without traffic, each way, from our old address. So it wasn’t convenient, but at least it was a place I could make it to once my perception of what’s too far away to drive to adjusted to Arizona standards.

At the time, there were no freeways in the area. Phoenix and Scottsdale were massively spread out areas with nary a two-story building in sight. It was, truly, a city built more for cars to live in than people. And being on the edge of Scottsdale made pretty much everything you wanted to do, aside from going to the grocery, a trip of 10 or more miles on surface streets with lights that never synched up except to ensure you hit every single one in red.

Not the actual car I owned, but a photo of the same model and color. It had the original floor mats, 4-speed manual transmission and ran on regular gas — back when you could still buy such a thing.

Nonetheless, with two younger sisters and two working parents, my drivers license made sure I was kept busy dropping off or picking up somebody around the entire north quarter of Phoenix in a yellow 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Thank god it had a tape player. It did not have AC. That deficit’s seriousness would not make itself fully known, however, until the following spring and summer. Either way, it was a lot of time spent in the car.

At the time, I was buying pretty much only Marvel comics. I knew exactly which ones were coming out each week, thanks to Marvel Age Magazine, and I had them on subscription at Fog Hollow — my first pull file. Money was tight, so I’d calculate the exact cover price minus the discount plus the sales tax to ensure I could pay for my comics before making that drive. More than once I paid for my weekly haul to the penny.

Fog Hollow was located in a strip mall suite and, unlike many comics shops, had large windows on two sides of the space and was therefore bright and open and inviting. There was the usual back-issue bin in the center, with new releases on racks around the edge. Under the back-issue bin, behind a small door, was where the subscriber books were kept.

I remember on my first visit finding at least two comics that eluded me in Edmonton and really shouldn’t have: X-Men #192 and Power Pack #27. The former I just never could find in any of the back issue bins at the shops I frequented despite being only a couple years old and all the issues around it being easy to find. Power Pack #27 was part of the Mutant Massacre storyline and had sold out instantly in Edmonton, but was still racked in the new comics when I rolled in to Fog Hollow. That made me happy, and I was a steady customer of the shop through the summer of 1987, when it closed.

I remember stopping in on Friday afternoons to pick up my books. (New comic-book days on Wednesday were not a thing at that time — at least not one I was aware of.) I’d take home the comics I was reading at the time — from memory, standard Marvel stuff, such as X-Men, The New Mutants, Alpha Flight, The Amazing Spider-Man, Classic X-Men, X-Factor, Marvel Saga, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, The ‘Nam, Strikeforce: Morituri, Power Pack, some New Universe titles and Cloak & Dagger — and would spend most of the evening after dinner reading, re-reading, admiring and thinking about the new books. I didn’t have anything else to do, really.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 (Feb. 1987) is one of my all-time favorite comics. Cover art by Mark D. Bright.

Among the cool items I procured at this shop: A copy of X-Men #141 that I scored for a whopping 50 cents in the back-issue bin, and later took to the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con to be signed by both Chris Claremont and John Byrne; a second printing of The ‘Nam #1, as I was completely in love with this series and the great Michael Golden art; Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1, which was easily one of my most re-read books for the next year; and a copy of the first printing of the Wolverine TPB, collecting the original miniseries by Claremont and Miller, costing me a whopping $4.95, plus Arizona sales tax. (A quick note: I had a tough time adjusting at first to sales tax because there was none in Alberta. There, if it cost 99 cents and you gave them a dollar, you got back a penny. In Arizona, if it cost 99 cents, you had to hand over $1.07.)

Cover to the first printing of the Wolverine trade paperback, which collected the four-issue series by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein for the first time. Cost me all of $4.95!

Fog Hollow was run by a woman named Susan Putney, whom I later realized wrote a graphic novel for Marvel called Spider-Man: Hooky, that was drawn by no-less-a-great than Bernie Wrightson. When I eventually acquired a copy, I really enjoyed it. I also found a site that referenced a quote from former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who said he really liked Putney’s work and thought she could be good — but she kind of vanished after Hooky and Shooter himself was out at Marvel around the same time.

Cover to Spider-Man: Hooky, published in 1986. Art by Berni(e) Wrightson.

A little Googling reveals Putney also wrote a science-fiction novel called Against Arcturus that was published in 1972 as a a flip-book paperback with Time Thieves, by no-less-a-great than Dean R. Koontz.

From Google, the flip covers to Against Arcturus and Time Thieves, published in 1972.

I remember she would ring up my sub titles and give me a knowing “good reads,” especially the third week of the month when X-Men, The ‘Nam and Marvel Saga all arrived.

I also remember lusting after the copy of X-Men #94 displayed behind the counter. I recall her mentioning how she’d already sold one to a kid who paid the $100 or so the book cost in cash. You never know what a motivated kid can do.

There was an arcade-style video game in one corner, that played a music loop the staff had memorized and timed down to the second. And I remember one time the staff opening a box from the distributor that included fresh copies of First’s Lone Wolf & Cub reprints. I was not yet smart enough to pick those up, but the staff was sure excited.

Later that summer, I remember coming in to pick up my books one Friday afternoon and Susan was upset, said that the store was closing and subs’ orders had been transferred to another store, called AAA Best Comics, over on North Seventh Street — even farther away from home. It was sad, she was nearly in tears. I said thank you, I had really enjoyed shopping at the store and was sorry to hear it was closing. I didn’t know what else to say — I was only 17 years old.

I proceeded to get into my car, and trek on down to AAA Best Comics, which was a fixture in my life for the next eight years or so.

And I think I may track down a copy of Against Arcturus.

But before that, my next post will feature a detour to the longstanding champion of Phoenix comic-book shops, also sadly no more. Stay tuned.

‘The Wolverine’: A Lot More Good Than Bad

I’ve been thinking about The Wolverine, which I caught at a morning screening — it’s what you have to do when you have a toddler! — on opening weekend.

There’s a lot to like in this movie, but it’s far from perfect. The movie’s been out a few weeks now, so I’m going to talk about stuff that qualifies as spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
Here’s the pro side:

  • This is the most faithful adaptation of a Marvel comic-book story to come to screen so far. There are deviations from the 1982 Wolverine miniseries it’s based on, but I was surprised by how much of that story was kept intact. 
  • I liked that the female characters were interesting. Yukio in particular is a favorite of mine from the original comic. And while she’s not quite the same character here, she played a major role in the story and held her own quite well. Mariko didn’t fare quite as well. I never fully bought the romantic connection between her and Logan. The comic version, despite its hokey elements, is a bit more convincing. 
  • The end tag previewing next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past was terrific. Patrick Stewart is back! So is Ian McKellan! I am now very much looking forward to that pic and find myself hoping Bryan Singer can really pull off an amazing movie that not only heals some of the wounds left by X-Men: The Last Stand, but also unifies the whole franchise and gives it an exciting way to go forward. My biggest concern is living up to the impact of the original comic book story, which has to be significantly fleshed out for a feature film.
  • I liked that there was a lot of Japanese spoken in the film, both with and without subtitles. 
  • While Viper was probably the least necessary addition to the movie, I really liked Svetlana Khodchenkova in the role. She had just the right amount of sexy sinister for a character like that.
  • The posters with the Japanese style artwork are great.
Here’s the con side:

  • After a very satisfying and interesting set up, the final act is so conventional as to be boring. The Silver Samurai, as done in this movie, was far less interesting than in the comics. The big reveal of Harada as being inside the big robot suit is just plain dull and has almost no emotional impact.
  • I wish more had been done to play up the love triangle of the original comic, with Yukio being an obvious and very willing match for Logan, who just can’t get over Mariko. That was a nice touch in the comic that this movie could have used a bit more of.
  • Viper is not well integrated into the story. She seems pretty unnecessary and her power is oddly portrayed and never explained. I don’t recall Viper having any powers in the comics. But I do remember she somehow convinced Wolverine to willingly marry her for some reason. (I remember it was in Chris Claremont’s return to the character in Wolverine #125-128 or so, but not the reasons behind that twist.) That might have been a more interesting element to play with here.
  • I hate the ripping out of Wolverine’s claws. The bone claws, in a word, suck. I always thought the bone claws were the lamest thing ever done to the character. My problem with it is it makes absolutely no sense. We were told for decades that the claws were housed in some kind of bionic mechanism, which must have been confirmed by all the medical exams done on Logan by everyone from the Sentinels (as far back as The Uncanny X-Men #98) through the Shi’ar and onward. Even in the original Days of Future Past storyline, when the Sentinels burn off Wolverine’s flesh, you can see the manmade mechanism that operates his claws in his bones. Of course, that’s a future timeline Wolverine, so it’s easy to explain away. But that doesn’t mean it’s still not a stupid idea.
  • No credit whatsoever for Chris Claremont, Frank Miller or Josef Rubinstein for coming up with the original comic-book story. Even more interesting, it appears Claremont doesn’t get even a token payment, while Len Wein, who officially created Wolverine but had little to do with the character as he exists today, did.   
The Wolverine looks like a solid but not spectacular hit. So far, it’s made about $113 million at the domestic box office and about $195 million overseas, for a decent total of $308 million on an estimated budget of $120 million. Anticipation for X-Men: Days of Future Past is running high, and it’s clear Fox is going to continue to develop and release X-Men movies on a regular basis, thus preventing the rights from reverting to Marvel. The series appears to be on the upswing, with the well-received X-Men: First Class and now The Wolverine getting fans past the disappointments of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I would love to see the franchise move past prequels and into new, fresh territory with new characters, new villains and new scenarios. After The Wolverine, it’s looking more likely than before, and I think fans of the comics and the movies can be glad of that. 

The 2013 Comic-Con Takeaway Post

It’s been a week, and I finally feel like I have recovered from my one day at San Diego Comic-Con.

Visiting the show for the first time in three years, it was interesting to see how little had changed. Most of the booths were the same, offering much the same kind of material. It made me feel less like I had been missing out by not being at the show every single year, and that in itself was a relief.
Marvel Team-Up #74

With only one day, I cruised around the floor most of the time and hit some key booths, including my pals at Animation Magazine. I did a tiny bit of shopping, picking up an advance copy of Alter-Ego #120 from TwoMorrows, featuring a cover story on the Silver Age X-Men. I also picked up a Wonder Woman bendable figure for my daughter, who’s become a big fan thanks to DVDs of the old Lynda Carter series, and a few inexpensive back issues, including Marvel Team-Up #74, featuring Spider-Man and the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players (a.k.a. the original cast of Saturday Night Live). I’ve always been interested in this comic, but never had a chance to pick it up until now. I hadn’t realized Chris Claremont wrote it, making it an even more interesting oddity from the late 1970s.

I didn’t buy much more because, well, everything was so expensive. It seems every booth is pushing an “exclusive” item costing anywhere from $20 to $75 and up, and very little appeared to be discounted. Perhaps that’s just a function of exhibitors needing to recoup as much as possible the rather expensive booth rate at the show. Either way, it put a dampener on my shopping interests, especially since almost everything I was interested in can be acquired via a local comics shop or online, often for less and without the need for me to lug it around the show. 
The highlight of the day was the Sequart: Advancing Comics as Art panel, during which I talked about my book, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, in conjunction with the upcoming documentary Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men run on the series. Director Patrick Meaney and producer/cinematographer Jordan Rennert showed some footage from the doc. It was cool to see how well the shots they took of my original X-Men comics collection turned out, as they were going for a different look when presenting the work from an older, more analog era. 
I also jumped at the chance to join Patrick, Jordan and Sequart founder Julian Darius as they interviewed Louise Simonson for the Claremont documentary. I can now check her off my very short list of comics pros whose work I admire who have not yet had a chance to meet.
If there is one reliable result of attending Comic-Con, it is for me a revitalized interest in comics. I’ve been pulling out stuff to read ever since and have managed to catch up on some of my immense reading backlog to very enjoyable effect. I’ll write about some of the more interesting stuff soon.

Random notes: Comic-Con, Pacific Rim, Sequart and Drive-ins

Just a few notes to pass the time while I try to find some time to read a few comics to write about here.

  • I will be attending San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday only! This will be my first trip to the Big Show in three years, I think. Very much looking forward to it! Anyone know of any particularly good new COMICS projects I should check out while I’m there? I think it’s cool that Kazuo Koike is going to be there, though I doubt I’ll be at all inclined to stand in a long line to meet him. Anyway, if you see me, say hi. I expect I will be mostly on the floor and avoiding the lines to get into panels, with one exception …
  • That exception is the reason for my visit. I will be appearing on the Sequart: Advancing Comics as Art panel, Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in room 24ABC. Sequart, in case you don’t know (and if you’re reading this blog, how come you don’t know?) published my book, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen. They also have gotten into the movie business, with Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, and a bunch of upcoming projects. I helped out a bit with their upcoming release, Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I was interviewed for the film and provided some additional assets for the shoot. I’ll be appearing on the panel to support this film and the filmmakers, Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennart, as well as Sequart founder Julian Darius. There should be lots of good stuff going on, so if you can attend only one panel at Comic-Con (lucky you!), make it this one!
  • Pacific Rim is a really fun movie. As I mentioned, I saw it a while back and wrote about the VFX work on the film for an upcoming issue of Animation Magazine (who also will be at Comic-Con, stop by booth 1535!) and with its release now imminent, I have to say I really had a fun time with this movie. It’s crazy insane in all the right ways. And it’s an original film! Not a sequel, not a reboot, not an adaptation — not a hoax! It’s really cool and I think anyone who gives the movie a chance will be pleasantly surprised if not turned into a big fan.
  • Additional movie fun: Both Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 are also a lot of fun. I wrote extensively about MU for Animag – check out the cover story here — and it’s funny and cool and looks great, through without rising to the level of Pixar’s best. Me 2 impressed me with the quality of its animation, which looks absolutely terrific. The minions are hilarious and Steve Carell is really good as the weirdo Gru. Again, not quite as innovative as the first one, but still worth the time. 
  • I caught both those films — along with The Internship and a second viewing of Man of Steel — at the Vineland Drive-In Theater in City of Industry, Calif. This is an ideal setting for parents like myself, as 2-year-old Kaya can make all the noise in the car she wants without disturbing anyone else and then, after she falls asleep, my wife and I can enjoy a second movie for less than the price of one at the Arclight or a similar arena. The image quality is quite good, and the sound comes in over the FM radio, and it’s a better experience by far than it was when I was a kid and you had to listen through those little window-mounted mono speakers. Drive-ins are few and far between these days, so I want to call attention to this little gem because it’s a fun experience that I think many movie buffs with young families would enjoy.
That’s it for now. Later.

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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