I can’t recall the first comic I ever read. I’m sure they featured in my early childhood, as my family has tattered old Donald Duck and other Gladstone comics to prove it. There were also, to be sure, the mini-comics that came with He-Man toys, then Starriors, and I dimly recall with favor one Masters of the Universe mini-comic with Skeletor in a magical pyramid that gave him awesome power. I do remember, in the year or so before I began to read comics seriously, asking my mother to buy me comics at the local mall (then with wood-dominated mom-and-pop stores in the same complex as sleek, plastic Wal-Mart) and her occasional obliging. Thus did I read the likes of Iceman #4 (cover-dated June 1985), with its clichéd “power of love” finish, although rereading allowed me to enjoy its dramatization of evil, fear, and loss.
I could just as easily have stopped there, remaining a casual buying and “growing out of it,” were it not for an unsupervised visit to the local drug store. There, on a spinner rack by the magazines and the lunch counter populated by old men, I found the first comic I can ever remember buying with my own money. It cost 75 cents, and that was a lot to me in those days. But I liked the art and what I’d glimmered of the story, and the fact that it was a #1 put it over the top. How I already had that notion, having never been to a comic shop, can only be explained by a boyish belief in the intrinsic value, both financial and literary, of getting the first in a series before it disappears, and missing it in those days, in my world, meant missing it forever. And so I took Flash #1 (cover-dated June 1987) home with me.
I cannot describe the magic and joy, nor the challenges, I found with that book. I read it over and over, slowly, puzzling out what the words meat. I knew similes and metaphors, but, like all children or novices in any world, could no more tell what should be read literally in an adult world, much less a super-hero one, than I could in that of Buck Rogers. As a matter of fact, the second would have been easier.
What sticks out in my minds most is a phrase at the end of a sequence in which Flash — Wally West — narrates the death of his predecessor and his inheritance of the name, albeit with reduced powers. “He” — the narration referred to Barry Allen, the previous Flash and Wally’s death mentor — “left me a picture of a hero.” Now, this narration occurred in captions over images of Flash running through a snowscape, leaving readers to imagine for themselves. And I couldn’t figure out how you could get an image of the ideal of a hero into a picture frame. As silly as it was, I somehow imagined some secret image personifying heroism, a magical talisman of visual rhetorical power. It was not out of line for a world in which people run at mach one. It made as much sense as any of it. But I knew I was missing something and did my damnedest to figure it out.
When Flash narrates that he didn’t have two dimes to rub together, I understood the expression but still half believed and imagined him doing so literally.
The issue featured Vandal Savage played as truly scary, legendary, and capable — better than I’ve ever read him since. At the end, Flash opens a box and finds a bloody heart. Was this a real heart? I wondered in the way a child, unsure of his apprehension, thinks the rug’s always about to be pulled out from under him, that the cop might be a bad guy, that the death scene played as poignant might be faked, that the girl batting her eyelashes at you and having her friend ask you if you’d go out with her is only trying to trick you and embarrass you.
The book made a lasting impression, most of all, because it was mature. Not only was there a truly savage and murderous villain, and a protagonist with a deep sense of inferiority and survival guilt, but he was hardly an unrealisticly noble, easily self-sacrificing super-hero. Asked to ferry a heart across country with his super-speed, he asks how much money he’ll receive for the task: there’s big money in these heart operations, he points out; everyone gets rich, and he could use the money. “They act like I spit on the floor,” he narrates; everyone assumes super-heroes should be utterly altruistic, not demanding so much as a living wage. Here was a super-hero whose powers had real-world implications: he was eating, always eating, supporting the killer metabolism that went along with super-speed. It was ultimately the startling maturity of the writing that sucked me in. Even then, I privileged the writer.
I was addicted. I bought the second issue, missed the third, bought the fourth and the annual, and continued from there. It only got more mature as time went on. Here, before The Authority or X-Statix or DV8, was a young super-hero enjoying screwing around. He was fucking his old girlfriend, Francine (from The New Teen Titans, though I didn’t know it then), for the first couple issues. Then he got involved with Tina McGee, later seen on the short-lived Flash TV show and still in the book today, although always in a remarkably sanitized version, hardly a love interest. The kicker was not that she was a scientist investigating Flash’s powers in a real-world context, nor that she was older, but that she was married — and Wally began an affair with her.
This was entirely clear — no ambiguity about her married status here, or that they were fucking. In one sultry scene I hid from my mum in those days when she could be expected to make random inspections of the comics I was purchasing if she happened to be there at the point of sale, she slipped out of the pool at Wally’s mansion, all skin-tight bathing suit. Her husband’s anger was dramatized, leading to his taking drugs to gain Flash-like powers and fight him mercilessly.
When Vandal Savage returned, he did so peddling drugs, with people decaying on the page, all blood and muscles. Here, also, was great violence, the best of which was that of Kilg%re, a mechanical lifeform that observed about humans as he killed people in panel, “the most remarkable thing about you is how easily you die.” What’s more, as many other books would later, the issues ran in real time, with Wally’s birthday marking the passing of a year over twelve monthly issues.
To this day, I will still defend the first twenty-six issues or so as fantastic forgotten treasures, important for showing revisionism smartly introduced into ongoing titles following the big, public revisionist shots of the mid-1980s, particularly Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. This isn’t bias; it was luck. I can only imagine how different my life might have been if I had found some schlock instead.
These were also tales that provided an escape for me, at a particular time in my life. My parents weren’t getting along, and my mother confided that they were thinking of divorce. She also told my brother and I some horribly hurtful things no child should ever hear from a parent, and singled me out for this verbal abuse while my father kept largely to his room. It was a bad time for her, and I won’t excuse her, but I could never not have sympathy, even when I wanted not to; what’s more, I wasn’t the easiest child, a lot of people have suffered worse, and I get along really remarkably well with my parents and my brother today, all of whom are good people and openly love each other deeply despite that all four of us have done terribly hurtful things to each other at one point or another. But at the time I didn’t want to deal with my family. I wasn’t exactly depressed; I didn’t understand enough — or wasn’t old enough — to be so. That came later. But it was a tough time. And those worlds of fantasy, of imaginative science mixed with a roadmap to maturity, to understanding sexuality and violence and drugs and literature — this was a world I could inhabit, reread and reread, studying page after page, panel after panel, again and again.
It later reminded me of the stories I’d heard of my father, growing up an orphan in Wisconsin, going to the movie theatres and watching the same film over and over, day after day — studying. He became a film and theatre professor — Ph.D., M.F.A., and M.A., not to mention having published crucial works in the history of film scholarship and teaching. Comic books not available, I went into literature and creative writing. Crafting stories — long handwritten narratives of interstellar exploration, strange planets, and totalitarian civil war — was the other thing I did to escape. It is worth noting, as if the truth of life could possibly contain more literary richness, that Flash #1 has Flash talking to a reputable and educated science fiction writer who speaks of the power of such fantasies, of imagined worlds.
For a time, I foolishly thought that all comics were this good and began purchasing them with some regularity, preferring to start with first issues. I read the premiere of Checkmate! (cover-dated April 1988) and still recall a blade piercing a man’s hands, the veins tensed in pain and blood. There was Starman — the one before James Robinson’s series — which actually started well enough. But before long, I had to concede to myself that Flash was a special case and not all of it was that good.
Before ten issues were up, Jackson “Butch” Guice was off as penciller. His legs had been too long, but his work had been tightly detailed and had spoiled me. After little more than a dozen issues, writer Mike Baron left the book, and I had serious doubts as to whether anyone could continue. This was my first trauma of experiencing changing creative teams on a beloved title. Bill Messner-Loebs took over as an unknown to me, though that was not so rare for creators then, however traumatic it might have felt at the time.
It took me a little while to warm up to Bill Messner-Loebs, and never liked him quite as much as Mike Baron, but he told different stories with a slower pace, more concerned with human interest and motivation. He toned down Wally’s womanizing without ignoring it as later writers would, and kept Baron’s emphasis on psudo-realistic physics. My own sense of morality was greatly influenced by a sequence, in the conclusion of the storyline Baron had left Loebs, in which the sexy girlfriend of a captured mobster implicitly offers to sleep with Wally if he’ll let him go. Wally refuses, but confesses with guilt to his friend that he actually thought about it; his friend puts it in perspective, saying something like: “if that’s the worst you do in life, you’re doing quite good.”
Then there was the Secret Origins Annual (#2, 1988) I read sitting in the car at the public library while my Dad, as he often did, played in a local band. It was a fantastic issue, revealing for the first time Barry Allen’s experience during his death in Crisis on Infinite Earths; at the time, I thought all of this was old news to older readers (it wasn’t entirely), but the story was nonetheless most excellent, and my sense of appreciation only elevated when I later read how new and important the story was.
And there was the issue in which Wally West visited Cuba and became favored by Castro. Later, there was the issue with him in a movie theatre in which his super-speed kicked in, slowing everyone down to a crawl — an automatic bodily response to a random bullet just barely piercing the skin at the back of his neck. And not long before that, the storyline in which Wally got his powers back, having lost then in the fantastic Invasion! crossover, in an experiment that sends him careening across country, the friction burning through houses and people’s dogs, ending with him tripping, the skips miles apart, ending in a crater where he hit the ground in a fireball. This was good stuff, and if it slowly got worse as the run went on, it doesn’t diminish the power of those early issues.
There was, of course, other titles in those years. As the above suggests, my interests tended towards DC. In 1988, I got addicted to Kieth Giffen’s worthwhile Justice League, and I preferred Justice League Europe to its parent title.
That’s not to say that I didn’t occasionally read Marvel, but there, my favorite books were two licensed properties. Transformers was a fun and imaginative look at a very odd form of alien life. Although I remember many of the earlier issues fondly, my favorite was probably the extended (and ultimately truncated) story of Goldbug and Blaster as exiles, a tale that problematized the whole good-versus-evil dynamic. I adored the title’s reprinting of the imperfect but quite sophisticated “Man of Iron,” which gave me an early look into British comics. Slightly later, I came to love G.I.Joe, and will always remember the issues numbered in the 50s through the 90s as the title’s very best — extended run, at least. The series could be fantastic, but it provided a far more realistic depiction of warfare and geopolitics than most, a status it still holds today.
These were magic years full of new experiences. There were the mail-order comics catalogues, received through responding to ads in the comics themselves. There, in those pre-internet days, I discovered a plethora of titles I knew nothing about, as well as the first idea of price listings. I made a few orders, cobbling together cash and an order form filled out in boyish scrawl, following all the procedures of mailing something, a magic spell that produced a package some weeks later. And I discovered comics specialty shops. And I attended my first conventions, seeing all the sellers and all those comics I’d never seen and was trying to figure out.
I picked up Dark Knight in 1989 on a family trip to the East Coast, along with the original black-and-white Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman: Year One, and a bunch of other stuff at a comic store that was better than any I’d ever seen. I remember reading Dark Knight in the hotel, at lunch in a family restaurant, by the pool, taking two or three days to go over it slowly, meticulously, in one long single read-through. I was twelve, and I thought this was some ancient masterpiece I was reading. I remember, years later, when I realized I’d only missed its original publication by a few years, which flabbergasted me. Of course, the years were a lot longer then.
On the same trip, we spent a week in New York, and I remember my little blue suitcase devoted solely to my comics — all of them I was proud of and regularly reread — stacked neatly in two piles, side by side. I remember picking up the newest G.I. Joe on the street at a magazine kiosk. I remember finding all those old issues I’d never even seen in store after store, including one with a basement full of more longboxes than I’d ever thought existed in one place. There the missing chapters in these sacred stories were filled in one by one. I remember it was Flash #3, which I had somehow missed in the spinner rack (if it ever arrived), that I was reading, standing in line in the glaring sun on the World Trade Center plaza, waiting to go up. I was still reading it in the glorious lobby, still in line with my family, my mother beside me. I’d put it away by the time I leaned over the rail in the viewing station and pressed my face, terrified of heights, to the angled glass that let you look straight down — and imagine falling.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that I at last read Watchmen. Its size intimidated, but it was famous, by Alan Moore, and suddenly no more expensive than the trade paperbacks I was now buying with regularity. Watchmennever had the emotional impact on me that Dark Knight had, but I took it almost at once for something altogether more mature, more subtle, more impressive. It too I would reread, and to this day is probably the book I get down from the shelves most often, just to reread some sequence and see how it worked again on so many levels at once.
In 1992, I consciously decided to expand my tastes and picked up every mature readers title DC published. The Sandman was a revelation: I still remember pouring over #41 (cover-dated September 1992) again and again, dissecting every sentence of the early issues of Brief Lives to figure out, as a creative writer myself, how Neil Gaiman got his captions to work like that. But “Seasons of Mists” remained my favorite story. Dave McKean’s covers also deserve mention, redefining what could be done with comics artwork.
Then there was Doom Patrol, the chaos theory of Grant Morrison. His final issue, “The Empire of Chairs” (#63, cover-dated January 1993), was a masterpiece. There was Peter Milligan’s poetic savagery on Shade, The Changing Man. And Garth Ennis’s simplistic horror on Hellblazer.
My world took a quantum leap forward. Within a year, on my now paltry allowance, I’d managed to buy runs of these titles. I wasn’t so fond of Nancy A. Collins’s Swamp Thing, and less so of Tom Vietch’s Animal Man, but it wasn’t long before I’d scrounged up Moore’s Swamp Thing — and Morrison’s Animal Man and Delano’s Hellblazer and Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing — in the back issue bins. I sat in high school making outlines of issues and storylines, studying the structure of these runs.
When the ads for Vertigo showed up in the letter columns — just the logo with the words “get anxious” — I assumed it was a seventh title. By chance, I’d happened to be reading every book in what was about to become a line. And for every tepid Black Orchid ongoing it produced, there was an above average Sandman Mystery Theatre or a spectacular Enigma or The Extremist, and I was off reading Gaiman’s Black Orchid and being challenged by it. Soon came the stellar Vertigo Voices one-shots, and I was in Heaven, reading all of this at sixteen, my mum daring an occasional comment about how she didn’t approve of me reading all this, which I just found ridiculous. After all, I’d discovered that other people were as crazy as I was — and, more than that, they had a community.
Before long, I was writing comic book scripts of my own, following Neil Gaiman’s script included in the Dream Country trade paperback. This was before Alan Moore’s early scripts to From Hell were published and eagerly read in my dorm room at college. And way before the many scripts available today. (I even sent a submission out to Vertigo, violating the rules and using Gaiman’s Endless, only to have it returned as surely as my Star Trek: The Next Generation script had been for introducing a new alien species — and both, while early efforts, would have stood as well-crafted, probably above average fare. Always a perfectionist, in time the scripts would become more important than the comics they were supposed to produce, as my own published books testify.)
And that’s about it. My journey ends there. I soon picked up a large group of independent comics, assuming that was the next step in my graphic literary gradus ad Parnassium, only to discover that they didn’t have the same quality. If anything, I reached the summit as my tastes became fragmented: I could seek out Maus and Palestine and From Hell and Will Eisner (buying every book I could of his) and Cages and Cerebus and Bryan Talbot and Brat Pack — while rejecting the overwhelming majority of black-and-white shoddy publications. So too with Vertigo: gone were the days when I was collecting every issue ever having featured a Vertigo character with the zeal of the convert. Super-heroes would never again feel mainstream to me, even if I refused to consider Watchmen or Dark Knight less than the independents I’d discovered. Both the mainstream and independent work of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison played contentedly with Will Eisner, Jason Lutes, Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine, Dean Motter, Eddie Campbell, and Will Feiffer. Quality was what mattered now, and I refused to transfer my super-hero enthusiasm and loyalty to comics only in black and white, realizing that by the time you acquire that level of sophistication, such fanboyish behavior makes little sense. I’m one of the guys who just can’t get into Love and Rockets, but I’m as happy seeing Frank Miller doing 300 as I am Batman.
This is the idealistic progression we hope comics readers will take, from kid-oriented super-heroes to better-written fare and stories in other genres, through mature-readers material, and on into cosmopolitan tastes. It’s a process that may rarely happen, and it certainly runs in a non-linear way, with occasional exposure to material that one might think would come later, and in fits and starts. But it’s a process that really happened in my case, and all it really took was a little bit of intellectual curiosity.
But of course, that’s not the end of the story. There are always treasures from the past to be discovered, especially in our forgetful medium, from Neil Adams and Englehart-Rogers and Sterenko S.H.I.E.L.D. to The Spirit and 1940s Captain Marvel to Crumb and Phoebe Zeit-Geist — not to mention Miracleman and E.C. Comics. And there is always the discovery of foreign comics, from manga before it was so common to the classic Judge Dredd and Zenith to les bandes dessinées. And then, occasionally, someone like Joe Quesada comes around and takes a house of dead ideas with little but Mark Waid’s Captain America to show for itself and transforms it into a place where Chris Claremont and his imitators are paired, in classic bizarre comics juxtaposition, with Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Garth Ennis, making you take another look. Or someone like Warren Ellis or Mark Millar comes along and makes super-heroes feel new again for the first time since Marvels, which made them feel new again for the first time since Watchmen…
For as many weeks as there seems nothing new to discover in the comics shop, leading to embarrassing purchases like J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man, there are as many weeks in which there’s a new Andi Watson trade paperback or a team like Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maeev on Daredevil. Or there’s some new trade with material I haven’t read for years and that makes me think wow, I really had good teachers in graphic literacy from way back when. Or there’s a new shipment from an online store with international and independent comics.
See, this essay is supposed to be about how I got into comics, how I discovered them. Only the truth is, clichéd as it might be, I still am. And ever will be.