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.
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 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 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.
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.)
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.
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 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.