Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Life With the Skrull Kill Krew

Let's talk, briefly, about the 90s.

Dick asked whether or not there were any good superhero comics in the 1990s. He gave a thorough drubbing to a few of the usual suspects here. Tom answered with a partial list of his own.

Looking back through my archives, I've addressed this topic more than once, so I thought I'd pluck out a couple interesting pieces that might be of note if you've never seen them before.

First, about a year and a half ago when I was hard up for something to write about I banged out a brief list of my Top Five Mainstream Superhero Books of the 90s. It was off the top of my head and I can see maybe tinkering with it if I ever decided this were a topic that really mattered a lot to me, but essentially it's a good list I'll still stand by today:
5. Weapon X - Barry Windsor-Smith
4. Starman - James Robinson & Various (notwithstanding the bad parts)
3. "Unity", in various Valiant titles - Jim Shooter & Various
2. "The Rock of Ages", in JLA - Grant Morrison & Howard Porter
1. Marvels - Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross

Honorable Mention - Lobo & Lobo's Back by Keith Giffen & Steven Grant & Bisley

Keep in mind I had just recently reread "Unity" at the time and if I had to do it over again perhaps the book would not have placed so high - perhaps the Ellis / Hitch Authority would find its way on to the list. My main motivation behind putting it on the list, I guess, is the fact that - like a lot of comics fans - I've got a deep-seated affection for huge reality-bending crossovers which feature every character ever, but am fully aware that even the best of them usually suck. I mean, yeah, Infinity Gauntlet still holds up as a ripping yarn, but given that the original artist quit halfway through because the story was too repetitive*, it hardly holds up as great comics art. "Unity" actually felt like the kind of story that had to involve all these different disparate characters, and it also had real, legitimate repercussions that would play out throughout the remainder of Valiant's lifespan. Now, we didn't actually get to see most of the events promised in Rai #0 come to pass because the company changed hands and went out of business (in that order), but the tight continuity and fairly unusual adherence to more-or-less well-defined sci-fi strictures made for a uniquely engaging set of stories. The bit where Magnus gets to meet his parents and doesn't even know it is simply great.

Lobo - the original Lobo, that is - is a great book that I suspect most people who came of age after the character's prime have never given a second thought, and there's a good reason for that, considering how poorly the character has fared in the ensuing years. I mean, seriously, if your only exposure to the character was the watered-down Main Man of 52 or the JLU cartoon or even - shudder - his surprisingly long-running, execrable solo title, you'd probably be disinclined to ever want to see him again in any capacity. But it was great black comedy, sort of like Marshal Law if that book had been created with the sole purpose of mocking its own audience. Gleefully hateful.

Dick hates Howard Porter with a passion that seems slightly out-of-proportion, at least from where I'm sitting - I bought the run off the stands as it came out and I must say that Porter's art seemed perfect for the material at the time. Even the dated elements don't really seem to grate that much. Sure, Electric Blue Superman and Crab Mask Green Lantern are goofy as fuck, but rather than date the stories (as I've seen many people suggest) they rather add to the tacky, overheated stew. Hell, there's even a "Genesis" tie-in right in the middle of "Rock of Ages" - and yet it works, because Morrison's JLA was a book composed of hyperventilating day-glo neon bullshit, and the more extraneous junk that could possibly be thrown into the pile, the better. Of course, Morrison would later take that philosophy and overdo it to the point of exhaustion, but on a book like JLA it felt right.

(I have to disagree that the hook-handed Aquaman was a bad idea. Maybe it's one of those things that you just had to be there for, and I'm not making any claims for Peter David's interpretation of the character, which I found rather boring, but at the time it made perfect sense.)

Weapon X is a great book that, again, is probably less read today than it once was. Probably the best Wolverine story there ever could be, even if it's only tangentially about Wolverine, and even if everything good about this story was subsequently trampled and gang-raped by the people who made the actual Wolverine comic book.

Maybe I need to reread Starman. I've seen more than one person recently make the claim that it doesn't hold up nearly as well as we all remember it. Maybe my memories of the early issues are distorted, and my evaluation of the later, dire, space opera storyline not quite as even-handed as it should be.

As for Marvels, I've never made a secret of my affection for that series. I wrote a couple long-ish evaluations here and here which hold up fairly well, even if they fall prey to some of my worse tendencies as a writer - namely, stating my case a bit too strongly, and rather skirting around the point when a more concise, direct approach would be more appropriate. To wit: the reason Marvels holds up for me is that it's about nostalgia, and the way nostalgia can distort people's lives. It's not about how great it is to read superhero comic books, it's about how affection can turn into blind devotion, and how the object of that devotion can't really love you back. Marvels is essentially a long-form version of Tom Spurgeon's "Comics Made Me Fat".

If you're of a certain age and have never had the kind of "break" in comic reading that a lot of people usually do - you know, the old, "I discovered girls / college / pot and comics went by the wayside" - in other words, if you're a lifer, your relationship with comics is probably pretty complicated. Comics can be like a drug. They say addicts get stuck at the level of emotional maturity they were when they first began to use. That is definitely true for comics fans, and learning to outgrow what can be a pretty crippling, albeit comforting "crutch" can be really, really traumatic.

That's what Marvels is about. Sure, there's that rush of first, sweet love when you find yourself drawn into the world of brightly-colored superheroes. But then you grow and mature, or at least, you do so haltingly, held back by your unhealthy devotion to the minutiae of Spider-Man and Wolverine. Instead of a sideline it becomes a shield against an unthinking, uncaring world. Reading comics as a young adult makes you, in other words, a socially retarded, sexually frustrated, out-of-shape and ethically confused shithead.

Marvels doesn't end with Phil Sheldon looking up into the sky, seeing Thor fly by and saying to himself, "gee, these super-heroes sure are wonderful". It ends with Sheldon throwing a coffee cup into a television and washing his hands of super-heroes, forever, because he's sick of that shit. Then he goes out and has his picture taken with a kid who will one day grow up to be Ghost Rider, which proves that these things will go on whether you're a part of it or not. The world keeps on turning, and it'll keep on turning whether or not you're at the comic shop every Wednesday to buy Amazing Spider-Man.

* Yeah, I know - there was the small matter of his being over-committed, due to penciling that summer's other big x-over, DC's War of the Gods - which was obviously a bigger priority considering it was built on the chassis of his Wonder Woman run - but if George Perez thinks your story is redundant, well, maybe you should pay attention.

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