When I was 4 when I was bitten. My parents had taken me to Yellowstone National Park. I remember wooden walkways among geysers. Old Faithful was still faithful then. My father tells me we saw bison and elk, but I only remember being entranced by a walking stick. It was the gift shop that proved fateful. It was there that my father bought me, at my request, a book that changed my life — a booklet, really, a thin, floppy collation of four-colored newsprint between glossy covers. It was called The Amazing Spider-Man.
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So much for the origin story. You can imagine the rest: I donned a ridiculous costume and stopped muggings and fell in love with redheads who thought I was sweet but nerdy, never suspecting that I was also the masked avenger who sent shivers down their thighs. I spent more time reading and rereading my thousands of comics than I did doing normal kid stuff with normal kids. I read "real" books, too — C. S. Lewis, Stephen King, Piers Anthony, Lloyd Alexander and what we would now call young adult novels. But mostly my head was Ben-Day dotted with mutants and Skrulls; "What the — !!" and "Great Caesar's ghost!"; "a man who can see across the planet and wring diamonds from anthracite," as Alan Moore put it in Swamp Thing, and "a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues."
I grew up at a pretty great time for comics: In the '70s, Marvel's superheroes were as likely to be grappling with drug use, race relations or sex as with giant galaxy-eating robots (in retrospect, these stories seem heavy-handed; galaxy-eating robots are more fun). In the '80s, DC got realer than "Real Deal" Holyfield with "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" (both of which, in retrospect, seem overwrought and slightly fascist), and independent comics like Cerebus and the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets were rewiring the medium.
I didn't just read these things. I was like Avicenna with Aristotle's "Metaphysics." I had favorite letterers, for god's sake (Tom Orzechowski!). I had opinions on expository thought balloons and bleed-over paneling. I pored over the letter pages, where readers debated the finer points of, for instance, the decision to kill Jason Todd, aka Batman's second Robin (which reminds me: Denny O'Neil, if you're out there, it was pretty sleazy to bring him back). I wrote my own letters, thrilled to see them in print in X-Factor or Cerebus. I gazed for hours upon Frank Miller's Daredevil panel in which Bullseye runs Elektra through with her own weapon — just the two figures against an abstract pink obelisk, fading in and out around the exit wound as if to suggest blood spatter.
It's a wonder I can even talk to a woman.
In the '90s, when I went off to college, I stopped collecting comics. I thought I'd outgrown them, and buying them required money I didn't have or needed for beer. I sneaked off to the comic store every month to guiltily read the latest issue of Sandman until that series ended, but I didn't buy a single comic book the entire decade. I sold my collection to a store in Colorado Springs for an absurdly low sum. Some of my choicer items were worth, I later learned, hundreds of dollars. But I was a dumb college kid — $100 seemed like a fortune — and the owner was an unscrupulous lowlife.
I should have known I'd return — everyone always does: Superman, Jason Todd, Bruce Wayne, Gwen Stacy. Captain America gets shot, but he was actually a Skrull. Peter Parker gets shot, but not in continuity. Peter Parker gets married, but a demon erases history. And I had given up the X-Men in junior high as unsophisticated allegory, the sort of masturbatory cartoon no self-respecting acolyte of Los Bros. Hernandez would be caught dead enjoying. But then I heard that Joss Whedon, who with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" had given proof that my geek flag was still there, was scripting a new series called Astonishing X-Men.
The rest is dross of the "I was transported back to fifth grade" variety. I binged on the terrific stuff I'd missed out on — Grant Morrison's Invisibles (Pynchonesque paranoia, alien gods, meditation); the T.M.I. aesthetic of Julie Doucet and Joe Matt (sloppy sex, narcissism, masturbation); Jim Woodring's seriously disturbing, brilliant, wordless Frank (just read it); Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev's Daredevil; Alan Moore and J. H. Williams' Promethea (Wonder Woman meets Kabbalah); and, best of all, Jeff Smith's Bone — and started reading new comics for the first time in over a decade.
Maybe it's just my age, but I'd say comics, like television, have matured as a medium since I was a college kid. Shows like "Deadwood" and "Breaking Bad" — sharp, cinematic, complex — seem to belong to a different medium than even decent programs like "Hill Street Blues" and "The X-Files." Only "Homicide" and "Twin Peaks" stand up to the best series of the 21st century. This development is mirrored in comics — Watchmen, Sandman, and Love and Rockets stood out in the late '80s and early '90s because they made their peers look as outmoded as Netscape Navigator looks now. Today every other comic on the stands would have been the most intelligent work in the history of the medium 20 years ago. There's a glut of excellent cartooning and fine writing, far too much for any one person to keep track of without neglecting other media (or family, friends and work).
The putative division between mainstream (read: superhero) comics and art comics is no concern of mine. While Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware and Craig Thompson leave me cold, I adore Carla Speed McNeil, Charles Burns and James Sturm. Yuichi Yokoyama's "Garden" is a surreal sci-fi tale told in first-gen Atari geometry and Beckettian dialogue:
"Let's leave this place."
"Look at that over there."
"The balls are larger this time."
"Could this be a river too?"
"The balls barely fit inside the river."
"This river gets shallower then deeper."
"They seem to be flowing toward an unknown place."
"It's as if they are leading us to a wonderful place."
"There's something over there."
"It looks like a bridge."
"Let's cross it."
Several of the best artsy comics, like "Garden" and Adam Hines' "Duncan the Wonder Dog" (in which a talking macaque bombs a college in the name of animal rights), are released in "graphic novel" format, novel-length books with a nosebleed design quotient. But for good old superhero action, you have to either check in once a month or wait for current storyline "arcs" to wrap up and be collected in hardcover editions.
It's true that many superhero comics remain pablum for children and slower grown-ups, but there are plenty of exceptions. Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, Batman and Robin, and Batman Inc. are pulp reimagined as a metafictional high-wire act. DC recently rebooted all its superhero titles to begin at issue No. 1 — a cheap marketing ploy (as if there's any other kind), but also an effective acknowledgment that the Justice League should be living in an orbital retirement home. The best of the lot is Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's revamped Batman, whose first seven issues have just been collected as "Batman: The Court of Owls."
Batman was always my favorite superhero, after my initial infatuation with Spider-Man faded (this is where my rant about how terrible "The Dark Knight Rises" was would go if my 12-year-old self were writing this). Superman is too godlike and goody-goody (and his powers violate basic principles of Newtonian mechanics, which was the sort of thing I cared about in middle school). Batman is a regular guy — well, a regular playboy billionaire. But there are no radioactive bats in his history, no chance encounters with nuclear waste or freaky isotopes, no genetic mutations. And he's just cool. That giant black bat on his chest is silly, sure, but it's also a little atavistic. It reaches back into the reptile brain and says, "Run."
Capullo gets this. His caped crusader is a feral black shadow taking over the page, all stubble and gleaming incisors. Snyder gives us a Batman who is vulnerable (to a secret organization of men dressed as owls, ahem) and possibly insane (a wealthy corporate scion who dresses up like a bat and runs around beating up costumed evildoers — insane?). Like other successful contemporary representations of superheroes, Snyder's Batman isn't afraid to camp it up a bit ("Whoever it was that just tried to kill me, he was good. But he made one mistake. He tried to use Gotham's legends against me. But I'm the only legend this city needs"). After all, superheroes are, in the last analysis, ridiculous — they're corporate fantasies of power, adolescent sublations of sexuality. They have always promoted a conflicted ideology of individualism and passivity; they have always ignored the larger political structures whose systemic imbalances allow the crime they fight to exist in the first place.
Yeah, yeah. And it's true. But it's not the only truth. In "Reading Comics," Douglas Wolk writes,
I love cheap and vulgar and exciting, and I don't think there's any contradiction between that and genius on earth. I just hate cheap and vulgar and boring. I probably hate expensive and refined and boring at least as much.
My love of comics began with the cheap and vulgar and exciting, and it's still the experience I look for when I walk into the brightly colored gumball machine that is my local comic store — the gaudy pop logic according to which a man bitten by a radioactive spider develops superhuman powers and still can't get a date.
Monthly comics worth checking out:
Matt Fraction regular-guys the dorky Avenger. David Aja gets his David Mazzucchelli on with stunning, elaborate panel work. The smartest, funniest mainstream comic on the stands.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" and "Sleeper" are two of the best comics of this century so far. Here, they apply their noir sensibilities to occult Lovecraftian shenanigans.
Where do you go with a title after Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker have used it to redefine superhero comics? In a totally different direction. Those authors' classic runs were dark as Hell's Kitchen. Mark Waid has fun with the blind lawyer who everyone knows is the red-costumed, quasi-outlaw Daredevil.
Locke & Key (IDW)
Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez are wrapping up their brilliant fantasy about a New England mansion and its secrets. Being a teenager is hard, especially when an evil spirit from the door you weren't supposed to open is trying to kill you. Loved the Kitty Pryde sight gag, Gabe.