21 November 2012

COMICS: A New Age of Brilliance

Comic Books are in a New Age of Brilliance. Not so much an earth shattering thought as a link grabbing first line. But the argument is to be made that currently comic books are seeing the apex of years of forces leading us towards so many brilliant story tellers in the medium all at once.

The cover of Uncanny X-men 217, my first regular issue of X-Men. The image is owned by Marvel Comics.

Yeah I haven't blogged in almost a year. Sue me. Life has been a bit busy, but this idea has been burning up my brain for a while and needs an outlet. Also, be warned... this is a REALLY long essay.

Right now, I'm reading a relatively decent load of books, and most of them are from Marvel. I'm not really a Marvel fan boy per se, but that's where the action is for me right now. I grew up thinking Batman was the reason for everything awesome. I came to the X-Men the same way a lot of readers of my generation did: as a teenager who didn't fit in and could relate to the idea that these heroes were shunned by everyone but still tried to do right. The Avengers were plastic to me, and always felt forced. I came to comics when sure, the Avengers were good comics, but the Claremont X-Men spoke to me. This was the age when Superman and Captain America weren't cool. I came to comics right after Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns and Frank Miller Daredevil, but right before the bubble of Valiant and Image.

I look back with fondness for the Claremont X-Men. I miss how that emotionally resonated with me at the time the way nothing else did. Batman was always a favorite and DC was doing some really cool stuff. Mike Grell's Green Arrow was like this weird education in how not to be an adult. Keith Giffen's JLA run made me enjoy a second tier of heroes the way nothing had before, or since. Giffen's Legion was also a favorite. The run when he let the team get old and saw their dreams broken, only to find a reason to rally and free the Earth from tyranny. I had the luck of going to a comic shop where Joe Nozemack was the clerk. Those of you that don't know, I'm talking about the guy who went on to found Oni Press. He made sure my brother and I always knew the good stories and steered us towards the great books. He was the guy that made sure I had a copy of the Death of Superman, but also made sure I discovered Milk & Cheese. He made sure I read The Killing Joke and led me slowly towards Hellblazer. Without Joe, I'm sure I would have matured as a comic reader eventually, but he was the one that made sure I never stopped exploring.

But thru all those explorations, the one standard that never went away was Claremont's X-Men: Mutant Massacre. Fall of the Mutants. Inferno. A holy trinity of sorts all birthed from the Dark Phoenix saga years before I got there. That sense of epic story telling and ever present stakes, all laced with effective humor, it never left me disappointed. I loved the art, and X-Men was the breeding ground for the future: Silvestri, Lee, even Liefeld. The thing was, and I didn't realize this at the time, but the art was a facilitator for story telling. It was the pallet that Claremont used to paint the epic tale of a bunch of mutants running from a world that feared them.

This is a really long prologue to my current point: I fell in love the with the story telling. I fell in love with sequential art. I fell in love with serialized stories where the cliff hanger was constant, and eventually became something I craved.

Then things, well, went a bit south. The 90's happened. The stories seemed to take a back seat to the art and the speculator market exploded. Comics stopped being about characters and became about variant covers and splash pages.

I almost quit. A reader since 8 years old and I almost quit. I had just started college and it was a relatively easy break to make. But the heroin like draw of the serial story drew me back. College is a natural time to push your boundaries, and so I started to venture beyond super heroes. Joe's influence pushed me towards more mature books. Grendal and Sin City and Hellblazer were already natural fits for me, but Preacher was the bridge. I literally stayed in comics because Preacher kept me coming back. I had loved Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon on Hellblazer, so following them to their new book felt natural. Then picking up Hitman was a no-brainer, because I was devoted to Ennis.

And just like that, a habit started. I stopped feeling driven by characters and became on of those guys who follows the creator. Who the comic was about didn't matter to me as much as who wrote it. Ennis was my first.

Warren Ellis was the second. Random runs on books just kept me following him more and more. Stormwatch, and Authority after it, was everything great about super heroes but at the same time, it captured me as a kid turning slowly into an adult. Between those two and Joe Kelly's run on Deadpool, I came back home to super heroes again. I stopped being a snob and started to fashion the idea that a good story was a good story, cape or no cape.

I worked at a shop in college and tried to follow Joe's example, trying to make sure the people who came in expanded their horizons whenever I could. In that vein, one of my regulars kept raving about this indy book I needed to try. It was called Jinx. He thought I would love it because we shared the joy of great dialogue.

He wasn't wrong. Bendis was a revelation. Like Ellis and Ennis before him, I decided I'd dive into whatever book the guy wrote. When he got Daredevil, I was giddy. Kevin Smith had brought the character back to the forefront, but Bendis and Alex Maleeve took the book to places not seen since Miller left. Ultimate Spider-man was a book I'd always wanted but never knew it.

Then he took over Avengers and the game was truly afoot.

Meanwhile, this random Vertigo book called Scene of the Crime made me latch on to Ed Brubaker. Ed brought me back to Batman and put the nail in the coffin of the artist for artist's sake. He let Sean Phillips tell the story thru his art and suddenly I cared for art again. I wanted it to facilitate the story, and from him I was able to truly appreciate Dave Gibbon's genius on Watchmen. Art in comics isn't about flash, it is about telling the story in a medium unlike anything else. To the 90's splash page crowd, Sean Phillips looked like crap and wasn't worth their time. To me, it was like discovering the secret reason for everything good in comics.

And then I realized all the writers I loved were so good because they meshed their gifts with the art. The X-Men of my youth were so brilliant because Claremont always seemed to write to the strength of his artist. The dry humor of Garth Ennis came alive because no one draws sarcasm and dry frustration like Steve Dillon or over the top insanity like McCrea on Hitman.

And just like that comics were fun for me again. I followed Bendis to the Avengers and discovered I loved the characters in ways I didn't grasp before. Brubaker took over Captain America and gave me my first taste of the madness that is Matt Fraction when they took on Iron Fist. Fraction quickly became another of my addictions.

About the same time I discovered comic book podcasts. Around Comics had an episode interviewing Johnathan Hickman. His debut book Nightly News had just come out. As one of the hosts put it, it made you wonder if the guy had special pants to house his giant balls. Then they had Rick Remender and I found another follow. Meanwhile Geoff Johns was re-inventing everything that DC had ever been while Mark Waid reminded me why I've always loved solid heroes in stories told well.

This is all about to get to a point, I promise.

As great as all that new energy was, there was a tension too. Comics felt like a giant competition between Marvel and DC to see who had the most inches when they dropped their pants. Everything felt like hype, even tho the stories were brilliant and were the reason I kept coming back. The success of Iron Man and Dark Knight in theaters only escalated things.

Then, the economy ate itself and the iPad came out. Digital comics were a real thing now. I had long ago run out room for physical comics. I still have a closet in my apartment lost to long boxes. I can't even read most of what is in there, much less even get it out. Digital was the way to go. Too bad it meant eating the young that is a comic shop.

Comics were too expensive. So like everyone, I had to cut back. I dropped back to the bone of the creators I had come to crave: Bendis, Brubaker, Fraction, Remender and Hickman. If their name was on it, I was interested. Hearing them talk on Word Balloon fueled my love for their work, as the insight it gave to their process only made me want more. DC had lost me. Final Crisis and the whole Batman RIP was this convoluted mess that left me cold. I had gone to Marvel with my budget and hadn't looked back. The hard reset of DC's New 52 confirmed my choice, knowing that these creators I loved had been given long term runs on their books and I never felt like they would get pushed off until they were done.

And then they were done. Secret Invasion and then Siege was like reading the conclusion to years of Avengers threads. AvX was the almost the epilogue. Hickman finished Fantastic Four, leaving behind him a book of (for me) unmatched genius. Fraction took Tony Stark to Hell and back and never once made me regret my investment, both emotional and monetary. Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force was a revelation. It has been the best dark Claremont X-Men, but bathed in the light of high concept. Oh, and Brubaker put his stamp on Captain American, in a run that will be remembered permanently in comics history the way Millar on Daredevil is revered.

But they all found an end to their stories. Marvel NOW was announced. I was concerned. This wasn't the New 52 they promised. This was just a big shift in the stories, putting the "architects" on different books.

I followed with trepidation, but their past work gave me reason and faith.

Brubaker left the corporate stage for indy work, and once again, I've followed him. In doing so, I've also started to explore books without a cape or a cowl or a super-hero all over again. Fatale follows the trail of Criminal before it. Uncompromising Noir kids... you should be reading it.

Bendis has started X-Men and seems to be on track to do the same as he did with Avengers. All New X-Men #1 hit me in my teenager bits and makes me crave those stories again.

Fraction has moved to the Fantastic Four, a place that feels like home in a way that is hard to explain.

Hickman was handed the Avengers, and I'm giddy with anticipation. I like his comics maybe a bit too much, but the guy just... well he nails it.

Mark Waid has taken a broken Daredevil and given him new life in a fresh, yet truly classic way.

Rick Remender has decided we've forgotten just how great pulp can be, and is giving us Uncanny Avengers and Captain America. I'd call him over the top, but you can't see the top from where he is. And I mean that in the best of ways.

I want to read these books. Nix that. I have to. They are all new and fresh and everything you want in comics. They resonate to the adult me in a way only the teenager who lived for Claremont's X-Men can really understand. Something these guys are doing speaks to me as a comics fan, and I'm not alone. If you aren't reading these books, you are missing out. These guys are killing it.

Comics is in an age of great story telling. This re-invention gives everyone a domain and a voice. Marvel has let their creators do what makes them great and not gotten in the way. Sure the hype machine isn't even close to dead, but when the books deliver great yarns week after week, it stops feeling like hype and more like a promise.

This is an age where brilliance in story telling has been given a chance. The people involved are giving us something we as comics fans always wanted. Buy their books. Figure out why you like comics and revel in the fact that the people who make them love their craft and are at a level we haven't seen in ages.

Comics are in a New Age of Brilliance... one of story telling that speaks to the kid who loved the books when they were new and the adult who grew up and never lost the love for the art form.

If you don't agree with me, go give the books a shot and tell me why I'm wrong. If you think I'm nuts, send me comments. If you agree, please do the same. But most of all, keep reading.


  1. You mention the name of the worst artist to ever put pen to paper, and don't immediately curse his name? YOU'RE DEAD TO ME!

  2. Thought about it, but felt like it would clog the piece. And, yes, I agree with you. At the time he came to X-Force, I thought he was awesome, but hey, I was in high school.