Sunday, September 30, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

15. Tell me, friend . . . how can you help me?!

Cable #30 (April 1996) by Jeph Loeb, Ian Churchill, and Scott Hanna

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Friday, September 28, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

14. I could sense people dying all over the world.

X-Man #13 (March 1996) by John Ostrander, Luke Ross and Rob Hunter

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Avengers #30

With one year of the Nu52 revamp in our rearview mirror, and the imminent beginning of Marvel NOW! at the next exit, there is an uneasy hush across the mainstream comics industry. AvX was, predictably, a blockbuster - at least by the degraded standards of our comics industry in the Year of Our Lord 2012. But in a manner that should be familiar to anyone whose memories extend as far as Fear Itself, Siege, and Secret Invasion, it has ended not with a bang but the most demure of whispers. Because the nature of the comics industry is such that launches, reboots, and plot twists are perforce advertised months in advance, every significant event of the past few years has been undercut by the very fact that by the time the last issue of the event drops, readers are already living three or four months in the future. So even though AvX #11 featured a "death," we know for a fact what the consequences of the climax are going to be because, hey, we've seen the covers for Uncanny Avengers and know for the most part who is going to be one each Avengers and X-Men team following the shake-up. (I place the word "death" in this instance very gingerly into scare-quotes for the simple reason that it was a terrible, unclear death scene of the kind that can be reversed at a moment's notice, if in fact the reverse isn't already a part of the story, which is precisely how the "deaths" of Captain America and Thor were handled in Fear Itself.)

In any event, Avengers #30 has already garnered a small amount of notoriety owing to the fact that it - along with New Avengers #30 - essentially spoiled the ending of AvX #12, still a week away as I write this. Chad Nevett put the problem quite succinctly:
I’m a little fascinated by the fact that both New Avengers #30 and Avengers #30 seem to take place after the end of Avengers vs. X-Men and… things are fine. We all expect that to be the case, but it’s more than that. Things aren’t just fine, they’re almost ‘normal.’ You could put either issue in a different place in Marvel’s history and not much would change. . . . This is the event that Matters (capital M, of course) and Will Change Everything Forever (for now) and, before it’s over, we’re being treated to comics that demonstrate just how much it doesn’t matter. At all. It’s just another crisis — another big event.
As he points out, none of this should surprise us in the least. We all "know" nothing is going to significantly change. But that's hardly the point - we're none of us ten years old. The median audience age for superhero event comics is not young enough to be fooled by even the illusion of change, we know full well. And because we're all savvy, the illusion of suspension of disbelief matters progressively less with every year that passes. So, yeah, let's just move past the crossover in the most perfunctory fashion, and get onto the real business of the next event - that is, the conclusion of Brian Michael Bendis's tenure as shepherd of the Avengers franchise, after an impressive eight year run. So that's what we have here: pet characters Luke Cage and Jessica Drew are receiving some kind of closure for their character arcs as prelude to the actual concluding storylines that begin in the next few weeks.

The real problem with Avengers #30 (and New Avengers #30, and for that matter a large percentage of Bendis's books in general, but he's hardly the only person against whom this complaint can be accurately leveled) is not that it spoils the ending for AvX - that's pretty much a given at this point. It's not even that it's barely a crossover in the first place - the whole concept of "red sky" crossovers is a reference to Crisis on Infinite Earths, which should tell you that insultingly tangential crossover issues have been part and parcel of crossovers since there have been such a thing as crossovers. No, the problem with this comic - an issue of the flagship book of Marvel's flagship franchise, and the concluding issue of a half-year crossover with the company's major crossover initiative - is that it takes literally five minutes to read.

This isn't an isolated problem, this isn't some kind of rush-job, this wasn't padded out to fulfill an obligatory and unwanted crossover obligation. Bendis was one of the architects of AvX, and furthermore, he's been writing the Avengers books almost exclusively for eight years. Not only can we be fairly secure in assuming that this is exactly how Bendis wanted this issue to read, but we can also say with some confidence that Marvel is really extraordinarily happy with how this books reads - enough so that Bendis has come as close in the last ten years to establishing his specific style as the new Marvel "house style" as any single creator since Stan Lee himself.

The problem with this isn't that Bendis is a bad writer. For all the shit he gets - and certainly, I've shoveled more than my share of it in the past - he's usually pretty good, certainly never less than competent, if doggedly unable to overcome the extremely pronounced limitations of his style. The problem is that this style produces a comic that costs $4 and take five minutes to read. The more I have thought about it, the more I have become completely convinced that this surpasses the level of mere fanboy gripe and is actually one of the primary structural weaknesses of the contemporary comics industry - Marvel in particular, since - lest we forget - they're the ones who pioneered the $4 comic.

One of Bendis's strengths as a writer is that, regardless of his own limitations, he's very good at writing to the strengths of his collaborators. The last six issues of Avengers - the AvX crossover issues - have been drawn by Walter Simonson. Simonson is still a very good artist, even if I don't think Scott Hanna's inks work to his benefit. But despite the great respect that creators like Bendis pay to their collaborators, I think they've adopted a particularly dangerous attitude regarding the way style translates into storytelling economy.

Allow me to explain. I think most comics readers, even so-called "good" readers, can be very mercenary when it comes to judging how long it takes to read a certain comic. That is, there is a small coterie of educated readers who appreciate all the intricacies of craft and style and can spend many minutes poring over single pages by superior cartoonists. This is something we can do with mainstream comics since - beginning at the tail end of the 80s and proceeding further with the rise of Image and the quantum leap in printing and coloring standards that followed - most mainstream comics are reproduced sufficiently well to allow the work of good artists to be showcased to its best advantage. I recently reread Todd McFarlane's Torment - a very interesting book in 22 years' hindsight, for a number of reasons. In his introduction then-Spider-editor Jim Salicrup makes an extremely basic, but no less crucial point, regarding the success of McFarlane's adjective-less Spider-Man work. McFarlane was one of the most popular artists in the history at Marvel, and - by 1990 - perhaps the single most popular artist in all of comics. (His only real competitors at the time were Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee.) The problem was, as Salicrup put it, McFarlane's work was too detailed for the printing technology of the time to handle. Amazing Spider-Man was a standard newsprint book with standard newsprint printing, which - circa 1989 - was pretty piss-poor. Salicrup lobbied to have Amazing upgraded to Baxter paper (or whatever the equivalent was at the time), but Marvel didn't want to raise the price on one of their flagship titles. The only alternative was to give McFarlane a new book that could better bear the cost of the improved printing necessary to showcase McFarlane's work to its best advantage. The rest is history, and it's worth noting that within five or six years every book published by Marvel, DC and Image was being printed with an attention to technical detail that had already far surpassed the impressive leaps signified by Spider-Man #1. Of course, the books had also become significantly more expensive right on the eve of a huge industry collapse - and the fact that the price of Amazing Spider-Man doubled between 1988 and 1994, from $0.75 to $1.50, probably didn't help. Sure, the books looked a lot nicer - there's no doubt about that - but the books didn't really take any longer to read, and a 100% price increase in just 6 years was hardly keeping pace with inflation.

Flash forward to 2012. Avengers #30 is certainly a fantastic looking book, but - and here's the clincher - it doesn't really take very long to read. I'm not - let me underscore this point - I'm not saying that we should roll back the years and start printing these things on cheap newsprint and go back to the era of flexographic nightmares. That's silly. But in terms of the most basic considerations of value, and whether or not readers are getting their money's worth from these books, I don't think the reading experience itself is commensurate to the price. Because, let's be frank, most artists aren't Walter Simonson. Even the best art should carry the expectation of being paired to a story worth reading. And even though I love Simonson, I don't think a $4 comic book should take 5 minutes to read. There is no way that this reading experience represents a rational return on the money invested.

The problem is that Marvel has almost completely lost sight of this principle. On the one hand, it's a good thing that the creative culture at Marvel currently offers a great deal of respect to artists' work, in terms of the quality of reproduction, coloring, and paper. But on the other, I think that many of the most influential creators and editors at the company have lost track of the principle that - regardless of how good the art is - a comic book can't be judged simply on how dynamite the art looks. Again - and I'll keep harping on this principle - if the book takes $4 to buy and five minutes to read, it just doesn't represent a good investment of the reader's money, regardless of how awesome the art looks. So I'm sure that everyone at Marvel was really psyched to have Walter Simonson back, and was more than happy to give him a run on the company's flagship title, and was thrilled with the finished pages once they started to roll in the door. But the stories themselves - the stories Brian Michael Bendis gave Simonson to draw - are beyond rudimentary. Whenever the topic comes up on convention panels and interviews, creators and editors are quick to note that narrative captions and thought balloons have become hopelessly passé. I think as comics readers we've developed a long racial memory that fixates on the negative examples of Don McGregor and Jim Shooter - completely over-the-top, often redundant, sometimes simply bizarre purple prose, sometimes simply basic narration concocted to cover up the deficiencies of uncertain art. With the median age of comics readers having inched ever-upward as the years have passed, there is a strong conviction that those kinds of redundant and often condescending narrative tropes have no more place on the comics page.

The problem with this is that serial comics need to represent as dense a reading experience as possible. Foregoing captions and thought balloons may indeed help make the storytelling more "naturalistic" in terms of being better suited to replicate the rhythms of conversation and the kinds of communicative subtleties that might be otherwise papered over by the admittedly didactic narrative approach of "old-school" caption heavy books. "Melodrama" is a bad word. But one very real side-effect of lessening the amount of words on the page is that it takes a lot less time to read your average comic book. So a book like Avengers #30 takes the better part of an issue to give us a single conversation between Hawkeye and Spider-Woman. There's nothing particularly wrong with the conversation itself. We can quibble about minor issues of characterization, certainly, but the basic idea - that Hawkeye and Spider-Woman are both terrible at relationships and are having to eat crow about the fact that they both carry huge piles of personal baggage behind them - is certainly fine. The problem is that if this same conversation had been printed in a comic not ten years ago it would have taken probably half the space to show and twice the time to read. That kind of compactness - the density that has almost entirely disappeared from mainstream comics, and is actively eschewed by many leading creators - enabled your average issue to cover a lot more ground with a lot more alacrity. This is how team books were traditionally made: go back and read any vintage run of Avengers or Legion of Super-Heroes and you'll find a book with perhaps dozens of characters that also somehow managed to keep every character active and engaged in the ongoing storyline. The storytelling itself could be abrupt and highly melodramatic - but those weren't accidental techniques developed by primitive creators. Those were creative strategies consciously designed to maximize the amount of story content that could be stuffed into your average single 22-page issue.

Oddly enough, when comics cost less and sold a lot more, creators seemed to be far more concerned with actually providing a significant reading experience for the readers' money. I promise that any comic you can find with a cover price of $1 or less will take far more time to read than your $4 issue of Avengers by a wide margin. The art may not be anywhere near as good, or at least reproduced as well, but a $1 comic that takes 15-20 minutes to read is a fine return on your investment. Do readers today want comics that read like they were published during the Kennedy, Nixon, or Reagan administrations? Probably not - for better or for worse we've evolved a significantly different style, a thoroughly contemporary style, that is probably too well ensconced to be easily dethroned. The word "decompressed" barely even covers it, because the current style has developed far beyond Ellis & Hitch's initial run on The Authority. It's expansive, it what it is. And, to be fair, there are lots of good comics still being published today under these creative constraints - interesting, well-designed, engrossing stories by creators at the top of their game being produced by both major mainstream companies. The problem is that if the rapidly dwindling audience of hardcore comics fans has been trained to expect that $3 or $4 for five - maybe ten minutes of reading material and pretty pictures is money well spent, there are precious few people in the wider world who will look at this equation and see anything but pure, suicidal insanity.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

13. Nate, ye must'nt lose control...!

X-Man #12 (February 1996) by John Ostrander, Steve Skroce and Bud LaRosa

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Friday, September 21, 2012


Alan Moore
Sex ain't a sacrament, because rape sure as hell ain't no black mass.

Grant Morrison
Wrote your last best words during the Bush administration . . . the George H. W. Bush administration. Your effort left the building when Crazy Jane walked off Danny the Street.

Neil Gaiman
His collaborators on Sandman probably at least got paid in something other than beer. Probably. Won a bet against God that he couldn't write a book worth reading after Sandman.

Warren Ellis
Your uncle's loft apartment in Staten Island, and the only thing left to read in the bathroom is a copy of Wired from June 1994. A cassette tape copy of Sugar's Easy Listening is playing in the kitchen.

Brian K. Vaughan
I've never before met a man whose goal in life was to become a Showtime Original Series.

Greg Rucka
I've never before met a man whose goal in life was to become an FX Original Series.

Brian Michael Bendis
Sold his soul to the two Davids - Mamet and E. Kelley, got change back for a $20. Thinks $4 for 20 pages of stuttering is money well spent.

Kieron Gillen
One day the backmatter in the trade is going to tell us that his run on Journey Into Mystery was a secret glyph opening a portal to an alternate history where Earth vs. the Pipettes was the catalyst for the successful formation of the Fifth International.

Matt Fraction
Every comics writer has that moment where they realize they stopped being that edgy indie creator who works in mainstream comics to fund his edgy indie books and instead became a mainstream comics writer whose rapidly dwindling spare time is eaten up by conference calls with emotionally needy editors. You reenact this moment every day like Guy Pearce waking up at the beginning of Memento.

Geoff Johns
Don't worry, little boy, you'll beat that cancer yet.

Tom Brevoort
True story: once said in an interview he always imagined he'd end up working for Fantagraphics. Probably still got the better part of the deal.

Los Bros Hernandez
Good News! Comics finally made it out of the low-art ghetto!
Bad News! Welcome to the academic backwater of American literary regionalism!

Like a kid whose mom sends him suitcases of Ding Dongs to smuggle into fat camp, Seth curls up in his jammies every night and listens to Katy Perry on his iPod Nano before bed.

Chester Brown
Ain't no way to a shame a man who released a 300 page first-person memoir about paying for it called Paying For It.

Johnny Ryan
You've got everyone's number. Makes a good substitute for having to try.

Charles Schulz
There's another universe where Peanuts folded after two years and Charles Schulz became a parks manager in Boulder, CO. He was a very happy person.

Robert Crumb
Been messin' around on a Wacom tablet in his spare time.

Carl Barks
Got to heaven, let out a deep mournful grunt when he saw Walt Disney's signature stamped onto the cornices.

Stan Lee
Probably deserves every bit of credit alongside his collaborators, but will go to his grave vaguely dissatisfied by the fact that no one likes a company man.

Jack Kirby
Had the misfortune to pick the least remunerative industry possible relative to his talent. Most likely could have made more money drawing department store underwear ads.

Frank Miller
Has spent twenty-five years in a dogged campaign to convince people he's nowhere near as smart as we once gave him credit for. To be admired for his tenacity.

Todd McFarlane
Once the biggest artist in all comics, full-stop, and the smartest businessman to boot. Hasn't made a single good decision since 1994. I don't like making fun of people with diminished capacities. Took his brain out to play with and lost it under the bed.

Jim Lee
One of the dominant forces in mainstream comics for over twenty years, still can't grow a God-damn mustache.

Jim Davis
Will die happier, richer, and more fulfilled than every other person on this list.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

12. Well, sugah -- it's about time you woke up from yo' nap.

X-Man #11 (January 1996) by John Ostrander, Steve Skroce and Bud LaRosa

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

11. You look for a gray area -- a point that's registering nothing.
A space that shouldn't be there. That'll be him.

X-Man #10 (November 1995) by John Ostrander, Steve Skroce, Jan Duursema, and Casey Jones

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

10. Her fear . . . her hatred . . .

X-Man #9 (October 1995) by Jeph Loeb, John Ostrander, Steve Skroce, and Rob Haynes

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

9. . . . Please don't tell . . .

X-Man #8 (October 1995) by Jeph Loeb, John Rozum, Steve Skroce, and Scott McDaniel

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

8. X-Men?!

X-Man #7 (September 1995) by Jeph Loeb and Steve Skroce

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Around the World

Daft Punk's Homework is fifteen years old this year. Does that seem odd to you? It seems a lifetime ago, especially considering the duo's subsequent career. Daft Punk don't repeat themselves. They've never recorded another album quite like Homework, and perhaps not coincidentally, they've never released anything even close to as good.

That doesn't mean Discovery is a bad album - or even Human After All (which I once discussed here) - not by any means. But it does mean that for myself, and for a few other Daft Punk fans of my acquaintance, the first few encounters with Discovery were - not to put too fine a point on it - crushing disappointments. What the hell was this 70s EZ listening shit? Where were the bangers? Homework is pure fire from beginning to end. It's perhaps the best dance LP ever recorded: although it was a massive crossover success, it wasn't really a "crossover" in the same way that we usually imagine the term. There were no stunt vocalists, no ballads on back half of the album, no Beatles homages, no guest rappers, no concessions to "relevance," whatever that would have meant in the context of 1997. There aren't even any obvious singles. Sure, we all know "Around the World," but an actual disco house track on the radio in 1997? Without a vocal hook other than the same three vocodered words looped over and over again? Say what?

When I say "best dance LP," I mean just that. There's not an inch of fat anywhere on this thing even though it runs close to the full 80 minutes allowed on a compact disc. The Chemical Brothers knew how to write pop songs and had the best beats; Underworld had the truly cosmic breadth and depth; the Prodigy never shook their roots as the world's biggest rave act, with all the good and bad that this entailed. But Daft Punk? They made an album of dance tracks that were actually dance tracks - and if you think that's damning with faint praise, or underselling their competitors, think again. There was quite a bit of really good electronic music recorded in the late 90s, but Homework stands out - not necessarily better than Dig Your Own Hole or Second Toughest in the Infants or In Sides, but definitely the hardest dance album to ever go gold in the United States. Perhaps that's where they got some of their early reputation for being, well, kind of dumb. Go back to 1997 and reread some of the reviews for Homework and you'll see an album that was gravely misunderstood by a large part of its audience. I can't help but think that part of the reason for this was that Homework didn't make any concessions to be loved by the rock-oriented critical establishment, who were only slowly warming to dance musicians, and who did so in direct proportion to those dance artists' willingness to pander to the hoariest AOR prejudices of said critics.

(Although I realize that sounded vaguely snide, this isn't meant as a swipe against any of the artists who made the switch to the more "traditional" LP-centered career model - just that dance music that sought to succeed as dance music without conceding some degree of structural integrity to generic syncretism still faced an uphill battle in the face of those music critics who might still have been nursing irrational grudges from the heyday of disco. Hopefully they're all dead now.)

Which is precisely why Discovery could only ever have been a grave disappointment. Sure, in time I grew to like the album. I came to appreciate it for what it was. It's obviously foolish to pine over something that Daft Punk never had any intention of doing - that is, record a proper follow-up to Homework. They didn't want to repeat themselves. They did their hardcore dance album, it was time to move on to something new - and from the way Discovery took off and eventually eclipsed Homework in the critical imagination, it's fairly clear that they were onto something. Discovery is itself now eleven years old, and now that we can look back with over a decade's hindsight it's not hard to discern that Discovery was an amazingly influential - and downright prescient - album. I know people who love Discovery who would never have cared for Homework, who actively dislike the type of house music Daft Punk made their bones by playing. But for me? For the people I know who loved Homework? For my ex-wife the DJ? Discovery was seriously weak sauce.

But of course it wasn't supposed to be anything other than it was. If they had remained committed to making more music in the vein of Homework, chances are good that they never would have enjoyed the same kind of success. Ultimately, being mad at Daft Punk for going pop with Discovery is very much akin to being pissy at Dylan for going electric - there would always be a small coterie of beard-strokers (or, more to the point, underground house DJs) who wanted to hear "Alive" and "Da Funk" over and over again, but at some point you've got to get out the Rolodex and call Romanthony. This is all relative, after all - Discovery is still very much a dance album, after all. It was just as plugged into the currents of electronic music history as Homework, but more or less 180° turn away from the dank nightclub atmosphere of their debut album.

Discovery is bright neon lights and spaceships streaking through the sky, Homework is flickering lightbulbs in basement dance clubs with sticky floors. Discovery is slathered in French pop, classic disco, vintage vocal house - really, "Face to Face" and "Too Long" are just one Jamie Principle vocal away from being Trax 12"s. Getting mad at Daft Punk because they strayed from one model of mid-to-late 90s French house / NY garage is really rich, considering how deeply their sophomore album is soaked in the sound of mid-to-late 70s proto- and early disco. It isn't entirely a house album partly because the music that primarily inspired the album wasn't house music - it was house music's parents, the kind of stuff you might have expected Larry Levan to be spinning way back in 1977 when the Paradise Garage was just getting started. (And, uh, Supertramp.)

But with all that said - I can like Discovery just fine without thinking that it's a better album than Homework, even if Discovery is by far the more beloved and successful of the two records. (For as close to objective proof as is possible to find of this assertion, let's look at what is probably the nearest we'll find to middle-of-the-road pop music criticism CW, that is, Pitchfork. In Pitchfork's staff list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s, Homework comes in at a measly #65, right in front of Maxinquaye, and behind the Breeder's Last Splash (!!!). In that site's list of the Top 200 Albums of the 2000s, Discovery came in at #3, behind only Arcade Fire's Funeral and Kid A. Perhaps more pressingly, Pitchfork's recent "People's List" poll of the best records of the last fifteen years - as voted by 27,981 readers - placed Discovery at #26, and Homework at &72 - right behind James Blake's self-titled debut.) I suspect one of the reasons why people like Discovery so much is that it's a much better attempt at making a conscious "album" than Homework. It has themes and motifs and singers and guitars and even a little bit of a concept thing going on, especially if you also keep Leiji Matsumoto's Interstella 5555 film in mind. The only "concept" Homework has - which is spelled out pretty clearly on "Teachers" - is that this is a house record, perhaps even an attempt to create a platonic ideal of house music. If you don't love house music, you're just not going to get as much out of Homework. I'm not at all trying to say that its charms are opaque to those without the specialist's knowledge - I imagine that for many people Homework may very well be the only, or at least the first, house music they ever bought - but the appeal is nonetheless just a tad more obscure than the user-friendly 70s and early 80s vibe throughout Discovery.

When I listen to Homework now I'm still amazed by how powerful it sounds. I don't know why - and I recognize that this is going to sound really stupid - but it really does seem that they don't make it like this anymore, at least not that I hear. There's a solidity to the basslines and an authority to the kick drums that you just don't hear anymore. It sounds powerful in a way that I can't really explain, from "Revolution 909" to "Da Funk" all the way through to "Alive," it successfully epitomizes the contradiction at the heart of all the best dance music, the conflict between mechanical precision and human passion. You are overwhelmed, demolished by the intimation of a power larger than yourself - it's the pulse of the synthesizer waking up at the end of the album, on "Alive," perhaps the biggest sound possible. That's why Homework is such a good album: it sounds like nothing else, bigger than anything you've ever heard. Discovery may have songs and emotions and all those good things, but Homework has God's heartbeat throbbing like an 808.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

7. As if . . . we were destined to meet.

X-Man #6 (August 1995) by Jeph Loeb and Steve Skroce

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Thursday, September 06, 2012

With Apologies to Dorian

Image courtesy of the ever-wonderful Daily Donald

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

6. A Tidal wave of psionic energy warps out in all directions at once.

X-Man #5 (July 1995) by Jeph Loeb and Steve Skroce

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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

5. Yadda yadda yadda.

X-Men - Omega (May 1995) by Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid, and Roger Cruz

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

4. Too many good people have died already.

X-Man #4 (May 1995) by Jeph Loeb and Steve Skroce

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