Monday, August 24, 2009

Comic Book Influences, Redux

I realized this morning that I forgot some important influences on my comic book reading. When I was in the first and second grade, my family lived on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Some new neighbors moved in across the street. They were a young couple. I can't remember the name of the wife, but the husband's name was Robbie, I believe.

Robbie had a huge collection of comic books, the first adult I'd ever met who owned any. He let me read them, but only in a certain room of his house at a specific table. Reading the older ones also required me to be under careful supervision, usually while he was working on something electronic at a bench in the corner.

As a result, I got to read Amazing Fantasy 15 as a kid, as well as the first 100 issues of Spider-Man straight through. I also got to read Iron Man from issue 2 up through at least the first 50. As I recall there were some Hulks in there as well. I don't recall much beyond that, aside from the fact that everything was Marvel. Aside from the Spider-Man issues, which had a big influence on me (being a tall, skinny kid with glasses who was regarded as a nerd by many of his classmates, Peter Parker was right in my wheelhouse), I don't really remember anything about the other issues. Even at that age I thought some of the stories were silly.

Later on, in junior high, I had a group of friends who were tremendously into the X-Men, Alpha Flight, and the New Mutants comics. These included several girls: Erica, Jennie, and Miriam. A couple of the girls were also into the New Teen Titans, my first real exposure to any DC comics. As well as my friend Jonathan and my sort-of friend and more-like-a-rival Scott, who was (and probably still is) a very gifted comic style artist even at that age. I would read some of these comics at Jonathan's house, watch Scott draw the characters at school, and occasionally play some super-hero games (we used Superworld by Chaosium) that were run by one of the teachers who founded the Games Club at our junior high. I always made my own characters for the games, as did some of the other kids, while the rest tried to emulate their favorites from the comics.

What these two formative experiences had in common was that I wasn't buying any comics for myself--I don't think I owned any comics aside from a couple giant-sized Avengers or Fantastic Four Xmas specials that I picked up around the holidays. I may have had a few issues of Alpha Flight that were my own, as they had a hero character named Puck who was a dwarf, as is my sister, so I felt an affinity for the comic even though it was about Canadians and I was about as far from Canada as you can get in the continental United States.

So on the whole, my reading material was dependent upon what my friends or neighbors decided to collect. In this sense it was a lot like visiting the library to check out graphic novels: your choices are limited to whatever they've decided to pick up.

What did I get out of these early comic reading experiences? Well, the art styles of George Perez and John Byrne influenced me for a long time, to be sure. I also recall that those Claremont/Byrne X-Men and the Perez/Wolfman Teen Titans had a fairly even mix of male and female superheroes, unlike classic groups such as the Justice League, Avengers, or Fantastic Four. That influenced me to this day: when I create superteams, I try to balance out the gender ratio as much as possible. It just feels more natural given that we aren't dealing with special ops forces here, but a bunch of people who typically gained their powers by accident or via legacy.

But when I look at the Marvel Essentials b/w reprints of those years or the DC Essentials, I typically don't feel a big surge of nostalgia. The 1980s have some good story lines, like Days of Future Past, but there's more soap opera than I remember. And the earlier stuff is just hokey.

I do wish they wrote more comics ilke that today for younger readers, though. The Justice League Adventures and Justice League Unlimited comics, based on the animated television shows, have been great fun for my kids.

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