Crash Bang Boom
The first comic book I ever bought was Spawn number one. I don’t recall the exact reasons behind buying it save for the “Oooooh wow!” factor of the cover: preposterous swaths of crimson, gouts of inky black framed by sharp bands of bone white, swirling green mysts… my god, all that green… conveying a sinister magic that drew me in immediately. I stayed hooked on the Spawn franchise up until the creator, Todd McFarlane, bailed to go do other things like make figurines and what-not. The artist changed, the storyline changed, and I kind of gave up. Alongside Spawn, I followed other Image comics like WildC.A.T.S, Cyberforce and Gen 13. But when I stopped caring about Spawn, I kind of dropped comic books altogether. I guess I moved on.
To be fair, I’ve always loved comics, even if I’m a shitty collector. I’ve always loved Batman – at first for the visceral joy of him beating up villains like the Joker or the Riddler, and then later for the deeper subtext and moral quandaries his choices bring up for himself and those around him – and I’ve always been keen on the X-Men as well (because Wolverine, god damn it). I suppose that the biggest draw for me has always been the lore, as daft and ever-shifting as it is. Just take a look at any comic book related article on Wikipedia, like this one about The Avengers. “The Avengers? That movie that Josh Wheldon did last year?” you might ask. And after I throw something at you for misprounouncing Joss Whedon’s name, I’d say “yes” and ask you to click on the link. Then when you get there, click on another link. And then another. And another. And so on. The lore for even that one series is dynamically vast, a universe of characters and plotlines and drama that rivals anything out there. And this is just one series; now imagine all the other comic book series out there, even the less popular ones. Crossovers and miniseries and spinoffs and reboots… it just keeps going. It’s impossible to keep track of, it’s impossible to remember, it’s impossible to debate and it’s impossible to forget once you’ve fallen deep enough in to the well. “I wonder if The Avengers 2 will show the Infinity Gems! Will Iron Men get the Space Gem?” Just pondering all of it is beautiful and insane all at once.
I did miss out on comic books, for the most part. I never got in to Sandman or Maus or anything truly revolutionary, at least not when they hit the comic book scene like they were the second coming of Watchmen. My high school and post-high school years were filled with anime, job searching, a growing amount of self-regret and the crystallization of my geekself. Comic books were on the periphery: appreciated, admired from afar but ultimately dismissed. Perhaps the rise of truly good comic book movies changed this: geekdom and nerdery were suddenly in the limelight and characters like Batman and Commissioner Gordon were seen not as two-dimensional stereotypes but as complex, deeply-layered and – most importantly – deeply flawed characters. Sure, the comic book underpinnings showed through: the capes and gadgets and amazing last-second comebacks were still there, but the deeper essences – that damned green myst – became the focus of the story. Bruce Wayne’s rise to becoming the Dark Knight, the choices he makes, the people who suffer as a result. I think that’s what brought me back around. This time, however, I was more scrutinizing of my choices.
I’ve always loved cartoons but a darker side of me has loved when adult things happen in cartoons. I don’t necessarily mean nudity or sex; I think it’s more that when something as profound as death is treated realistically or at least in a fashion parodying reality (AKA “let’s show some blood in this one”). In Looney Tunes cartoons, the coyote always meets an untimely demise via explosion or train or painted-over wall or what-not. We know he gets hurt but we also understand that he won’t die, he can’t die: it’s not part of the formula. We laugh at his attempts to capture that goddamn roadrunner and we laugh even harder when him become a victim of his own machinations. So imagine nine year old me seeing Heavy Metal for the first time late one night on HBO. I was shocked; I was appalled; I was excited. These weren’t the cartoons I was used to seeing: Tom from Tom and Jerry didn’t bleed to death after getting a limb severed by a trap Jerry had set; Baloo from Tale Spin didn’t crash-land his plane on a haunted island and get torn apart by the vengeful spirits of other long-dead aviators; the Gummi Bears didn’t overdose. This was something entirely new to me, and I began to realize that cartoons weren’t just “Crash Bang Boom”. I’ve carried this nascent realization with me all my adult life, and that changed my perspective on comic books.
Take a look at my (rather meager) collection of comic books and one thing will definitely stand out: I don’t own many “big name” comics. It’s not that I don’t like them; I’ve reiterated my love for Batman already. It’s more that I’ve been drawn to less well-known titles that tend to dig deeper or go further or, in many cases, completely up-end the entire superhero mythos. These kinds of comic books don’t insult their predecessors, not by a long shot. They don’t mock Superman for being a superficial demi-god, they propose that he’s in fact a reflection of the best aspects of humanity; they don’t tear apart origin stories or mock the oft-used trope of “the multiverse”, they embrace that idea and reach in to it, pulling out rabbit after rabbit. These kinds of comic books are “post-superhero” books, I suppose: they’re less about saving the world and more about asking why the world is worth saving and whether or not those people in charge of saving it are truly up to the task. Sometimes they’re not even that broad in view; sometimes, they’re about a guy trying to right whatever wrongs he can find, even if the biggest wrong he knows of stares back at him when he looks in the mirror. There’s depth and wonder and terror and sadness to all of these kinds of comic books, and that’s why I think I fell in love with them all over again.
I mentioned Heavy Metal and how it affected me. The tie-in here is that a lot of the books I read are not necessarily fun or easy or even adventurous in nature; they are not always happy. But I suppose that reflects on the reader, doesn’t it? I’m not always happy either. But if I can dive in to the latest issue of The Goon or pick up an old copy of Transmetropolitan, I feel at least satisfied to some degree. The world of comics covers every possible subject on every possible level, with a scope as deep and as varied and as frustrating as clicking through Wikipedia articles about The Avengers. I won’t ever hope to scratch the surface of that continuum but then again, I’m not really trying to. I’ve found my little corner, I’ve piled my collection together and I’m more than happy to flip through the pages of what I’ve got.
Oh and you should read Saga because it’s fucking amazing.