Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Crunch From The Captain To You

I got a letter the other day from a fan of the site asking for advice as to what kind of comic would be good as a gift for a twelve-year-old boy with little or no comics experience. This is something that I imagine comes up fairly often, since the average age of the average comic reader long ago shifted from being 12 years old to being someone in the position to give gifts to 12-year-olds. It's not an easy question to answer.

Fact is, as much as we may like to think otherwise - considering we were all, at one point, twelve years old ourselves - it's devilishly tricky to figure out what kids will and won't like. Otherwise, everyone and their mother would be banging out Harry Potter and Twilight level mega-phenomena on their word processor. I still maintain that as much as we may like the "general reader" level comics that companies like Marvel and DC produce, there's still something of a ceiling to their appeal. Kids - at least, I'd say, once they get into the double-digit age range - have a way of sniffing out the ringer in any line-up. Sure, some of DC and Marvel's younger reader books are good - some of them very good - but I remain skeptical about just how much appeal they have past a certain point. (Of course, if you are buying for a kid younger than nine or ten, they're probably perfect.) I may be wrong here - I am speaking primarily from my own experience. But as I've said before, there is an element of luridness that must be present on some level in order to appeal to pre-teens.

What exactly is "lurid"? Well, in relation to kids entertainment it can usually be summed up as the intimation of something just outside the grasp of the target audience. I mean, seriously, most superhero comics are pretty juvenile, but there's a constant stream of signifiers pointing at something more significant under the hood - sub rosa importance that hangs there like a red flag for young minds. Be it the intimation of sex, the intimation of violence, the intimation of love or the intimation of fear, the strange grand guignol world of mainstream comics hooks kids because even if the stories are usually only an inch deep, an inch is still just out of reach for those kids who get hooked young. Sure, Spider-Man and the X-Men are pretty simple mechanisms for older readers to take apart, which is why later incarnations of the properties have become gradually far more elaborate and baroque in complexity. But if you're twelve, the idea of a fantastically stylized world filled with concrete representations of all those confusing emotions and sensations which remain tantalizingly far-off in the adult world is irresistible. When you reach your 20s, there isn't a lot in the basic concept of those types of characters that remains alien to your life experience (or, leastways, there shouldn't be), but when you're ten you don't really understand a whole hell of a lot.

So, with that in mind, I think a good gift for any youngster who might be interested in the world of superhero comics would be a later volume of Marvel's Essential X-Men series. The early Claremont / Byrne and Cockrum material might be a tad mannered by contemporary standards, and as much as some may argue, it isn't really necessary to start at the beginning. Most people didn't: the number of people who read or have read the X-Men who also started chronologically with Giant Sized X-Men #1 has to be minuscule. Everybody started in the middle, just about, considering it was a stable serial continuity that ran for almost two-hundred extraordinarily successful issues before grinding to a screeching halt with Uncanny #281. The whole point is not to have everything spoon-fed from the beginning - you jump in with a whole pile of unfamiliar characters and situations, and your desire to learn more about who these people are and what exactly they're doing pushes you forward, just like many of the other strange and unfamiliar experiences of childhood and adolescence. It's good for a kid to explore something like the X-Men or Harry Potter, where they can conceivably master all they need to know about the subject matter if they just read more - that kind of curiosity is a good counterbalance to the inevitably frustrating experience of growing older and realizing that it's not as easy or even possible for a kid to learn all there is to know about, say, sex or violence or money. All of which means, anyplace is as good to start as any. And if you're going to, why not start when it gets really good?

I may be in the minority here, I don't know for certain, but for my money the best period of X-Men is the period around roughly #200-250 - Claremont had been on the title long enough that he had the confidence and the respect to get away with pretty much anything he wanted. It's pretty awesome that so much of it succeeded as well as it did. The series had already became the most popular series in comics, so Claremont was justified if he betrayed a certain swagger - but at the same time, the subtext of this whole run is very clearly a fight against the kind of calcification and creative death that would be the only rational result of giving in to the temptation to allow the strip to metastasize into merely another static franchise. He fought the good fight to keep the series distinct and different for far longer than anyone could have reasonably expected, and in the end only really failed on account of a series of circumstances he could never have predicted (i.e., the rising popularity of those artists who would soon found Image comics, coupled with the general upswing in comics' popularity of the late 80s). If the last few dozen issues of the run seem to lose their momentum, well, more's the pity - if he had had a clear field he probably could have kept juggling the balls until doomsday. He was done in by the sad fact that the series simply became too popular for him to pretend he had any control over it. In the space of a decade it went from being a popular franchise to the most popular franchise to the most popular franchise that had ever been, at least since the days of Captain Marvel and Superman routinely selling millions of issues. (His later returns to the franchise have seemed to indicate he left exactly when he should have left, but even a sub-par creative vision is better than a first-rate franchise installment - as good a description of Claremont's significance to comics history as I've ever seen.)

For my money you could do worse than starting with volume #6, featuring the entirety of the still-disturbing "Mutant Massacre" storyline. This is significant as it was really the first - or one of the first - franchise-wide crossovers not related to some sort of overarching macro-series, like Secret Wars or the original Crisis. It basically grew organically out of the X-books, with a few other titles like Thor, Power Pack and Daredevil joining in for good measure. The point of this series, which set the tone for the next five or so years on the title, was to begin the long process of taking the X-Men apart piece by piece, a sequence which began in issue #200 with the beginning of Professor Xavier's long absence and Magneto's stewardship of Xavier's school.

The Mutant Massacre put half the team out of commission for a long time - Nightcrawler and Shadowcat were written out of the book permanently, and Colossus was gone for over a year. A bunch of rookies showed up, folks like Dazzler, Longshot, the still-Caucasian Psylocke and rusty old-school 60s X-Man Havok (whose Neal Adams-designed black bodysuit and concentric circles is still one of the coolest costumes ever). Wolverine was thrown into the unexpected role of being the team's elder statesman and Storm dealt with the continuing loss of her powers - a subplot that continued for around fifty issues, an unimaginably long time by today's standards. These threads came to a head with volume #7, in which all of these subplots culminate in the still very good "Fall of the Mutants" storyline. At the climax, the team sacrifices their lives in battle against the (somewhat purposefully generic) Adversary, only to be resurrected and dispatched to Australia.

The Australian period gets a lot of flack from certain segments of the fan population, but it remains a favorite of mine - the stories building from the team's fake death got progressively more desperate as it became obvious that the team was falling apart in ways that didn't seem so easily remedied. (The Australian sequence runs through most of volume #8.) It's all completely overblown and melodramatic, filled with Claremontian excess and stylized action - melancholy, depressed and positively Gothic in places - but it's nevertheless extremely well-constructed in a way that most contemporary superhero books can't even begin to approach. Marc Silvestri provides the art for the majority of volumes 7 & 8, and his work is pretty damn great - it's not hard to see why he had the reputation of being the best of the original Image artists. His action sequences are clean and easy to follow, his backgrounds are imaginative, his body and facial types varied and expressive, and - of course! - his women, very sexy without being slutty, in a way that surely thrilled hundreds of thousands of adolescent boys at the time of initial release. Basically, everything good about getting addicted to long-term superhero adventure continuity can be found in these pages, and just about every title that has achieved any degree of success in the past couple decades has cribbed more or less from Claremont's X-Men. Regardless of their generally overlooked status, these later runs are no less influential in their way than the earlier iconic material like the Dark Phoenix saga and "Days of Future Past".

But if you're not kindly predisposed to the X-Men, there are other books Junior might like:

Longtime aficionados can pick nits all day long, but Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's Ultimate Spider-Man was a dramatic success in terms of accomplishing exactly what it set out to do - i.e., updating the character of Spider-Man to fit securely in a modern milieu. It's not perfect - I think it was a mistake to tie the Green Goblin so strongly to Spider-Man's origin, and the reconceptualization of the Goblin as a Hulk wannabe was pretty badly misconceived - but put that kind of fanboy crap aside and it's easy to love the one thing the series does so eerily and consistently well. It's the characters, stupid - here's Peter Parker and Aunt May and Mary Jane and Norman Osborne and Doctor Octopus, all maybe changed a bit but only cosmetically, and only in the service of communicating what is most essential to each character's appeal. I don't follow the series regularly but so far as I can tell Bendis has never wavered from his ability to deliver a Peter Parker so consistently spot-on that it borders on archetypal. The first story arc is presented here, but considering the series' sometimes-glacial pacing, it might be better to start with a bigger book, featuring the first two storylines for only six dollars more.

Again, it's not a series that gets a lot of love from the cognoscenti - it's certainly not my favorite - but I have a hard time coming up with a better Batman story for a young adolescent than Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb's Hush. All of the elements that might seem like weaknesses to older audiences - Lee's reliance on flashy pin-up style storytelling; the straight-forward and consciously repetitive plot; the downright-cynical means by which Loeb cherry-picks all of the character's "greatest hits" from the last thirty-odd years of his adventures - will probably be perfect for a younger reader with nothing more than a vague idea of just who the Caped Crusader actually is. You want to see Batman wailing on Superman? Being pushed to the limit of endurance by the Joker? Fighting a moonlight duel in the desert against Ra's al Ghul? Finally confessing his feelings towards the rarely-more-zaftig Catwoman? We've seen all these beats played before and better, but for those with no prior Batman experience this story would probably play like the proverbial hypodermic needle full of adrenaline stabbed straight into the heart. (Note: Lee's art is a bit more explicit even than Silvestri's work on X-Men, with some very sexy females and a particularly demoniac Joker, so it'd probably be a good idea to make sure it's on the kid's level, rather than risk pissing off their parents. Nothing more explicit than you'd get in some PG-13 movies, but putting it all on the pages of a static medium makes it seem a bit more menacing than it would if it were onscreen or in a video game.) Unfortunately, the series is still only available split up into two parts, but you can get both for about twenty bucks. The first part is here, the second here.

If seeing a bunch of superheroes all in one place and kicking the living shit out of some bad guys is all you require, the first volume of Grant Morrison's run on JLA is probably just what the doctor ordered. The best Hulk story of recent years is probably Planet Hulk, an unusual fantasy-tinged sci-fi adventure in space that features a planet-full of gruesome monsters, fearsome warriors and - of course - the Hulk smashing the tar out of everyone he meets. For anyone fascinated by Iron Man after seeing his successful film, it's actually rather difficult to find good done-in-one Iron Man volumes that might appeal to younger readers, but the best bet may just be this volume featuring two of Iron Man's most famous adventures with Doctor Doom. If it's something more in the vein of straight sci-fi you're looking for, the second volume of the Essential Silver Surfer might be the solution (the first volume reprints all of the Surfer's 60s series, and as such is probably a bit too dated in execution to appeal to younger readers.)

And then, of course, you have my personal favorite new series of the last decade or so, Marvel's Runaways. It's the only series I actually own entirely in swanky hardcovers, and I love it so much I still haven't read the third volume because I know in advance that something bad happens to my favorite character. The hardcovers are probably a bit much for a blind gift item, but the series is also available in stocking-stuffer sized digests, the first of which is available here. Inexplicably the second book of the digests appears to be out of print, but if the first is a hit you can probably find the second volume through a local retailer or used.

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