Sunday, July 31, 2016

Episode 3 - "I Wanna Be Clay Man!"

I was at my fifth birthday party in some park in rural Ohio. Someone, I don't remember who, had let me look at a copy of Avengers # 172 (it would have been nice if they'd just given it to me, but it is what it is). While the details of the story, which I've only recently read, did not stick with me at the time, the layout of the cover certainly did (which is the only way I know that this is the issue in question). It featured a figure in purple striking a dramatic pose, surrounded by the stunned close-up faces of four of his comrades.

Although I didn't know who most of these characters were at the time, I eventually learned that the guy in purple was Hawkeye, and three of the close up faces were Captain America, the Beast, and Ms. Marvel.

It was the fourth close-up character that really got my attention though. He was a man with a red face, and eyes that were so hooded and dark that they looked like pinpricks of light in a pair of dark chasms.
Flipping through the book, I saw that he was dressed in a green costume that contrasted boldly with the color of his skin, as well as a flowing cape with a high dramatic collar. I didn't know what this guy was or what he could do, but I knew that this was my new favorite superhero.

Don't ask me how, but my four year self could tell this wasn't supposed to be a guy wearing face paint, and I didn't think he was an alien. Somehow I got the impression that he was supposed to be artificial, and that he was supposed to be heavier than everyone else. My little kid mind, with absolutely no other grasp of the character, then made the leap of logic that he was supposed to be made out of clay. For the next couple of years then, whenever I'd play superheroes with my elementary school classmates or the other kids in my grandparents neighborhood, I would inevitably proclaim "I wanna be Clay Man!"

If you don't happen to own a copy of Avengers # 172, if you haven't bothered to do a Google search of the cover, or if you can't tell from the description above, the character I had once decided was named "Clay Man" is, in actuality, the Vision, a fact that I stumbled upon with the release of Vision and Scarlet Witch (volume 1) #1, in 1982. I was walking past the magazine rack of a grocery store with my dad, I saw the issue and I remember thinking "That's him!". Sadly, my ownership of that issue was not to be at the time, but I felt like a piece of a puzzle had been fit into place, at least as far as his name and somewhat (judging by the cover art) of what he was able to do. I've been fascinated ever since.

I'd be lying if I said the Vision has always been my favorite character. I was, after all, a teenager during the late-80s and early-90s. This was the time period when, if you wanted to boost sales on a title, you had Wolverine guest star in it for at least one issue every six months. This was the time when mutants were Marvel's gold mine, when dark edgy characters made more traditional characters look dull and old fashioned. If it wasn't a guy with spikes, or blades, or a big gun (with requisite big shoulder pads), if it wasn't a girl with a Barbie doll physique and a costume made out of tape and dental floss, it didn't sell.  I can admit that I, as a part of their target audience at the time, bought into it.

The Avengers aren't "edgy" (though writer Bob Harras did his best to give then an edgy feel while still telling a solid story), and while I still picked up a few issues from time to time, they were never at the top of my wish list is those days. That being said, however, the Vision was the character that always made me jump back into the Avengers whenever the creators put him back on the title, and was always the character that made me curse the writer and editor whenever some new tragedy would inevitably befall him.

The Vision first appeared in Avengers (volume 1) # 57 in 1968, written by Roy Thomas, with art by John Buscema. The story opens with him infiltrating the Avengers Mansion, where he encounters the Wasp, who names him "an unearthly, inhuman vision". Through the expository dialogue that was typical of the late-Silver/early-Bronze Age, the newly christened Vision declares that he is a "synthezoid" (a synthetic humanoid), created by the robotic villain Ultron and sent to destroy the Avengers. When the Wasp flees the Vision gives chase and attacks her, then fights and easily defeated Avengers members Giant-Man, the Black Panther, and Hawkeye, demonstrating his abilities to alter his density and fire beams of heat from his eyes. Before he can carry out his task, however, the Vision rejects his orders and agrees to help the Avengers against Ultron. Though he inadvertently leads them into a trap, the Vision single handedly defeats this version of Ultron (there will be many more) and frees the Avengers. He is inducted into the team the next issue.

When I was finally able to get a hold of a few issues of the Avengers featuring the Vision I was fascinated by the dichotomy of his abilities. Here was a character that could be an ethereal wraith one moment, and a blazing powerhouse the next. I would come to see this, over the years, as a metaphor for the Vision's very nature. Though he was often distant and aloof, he was very capable of feeling emotions, as shown at the end of his second appearance, when he sheds a tear of gratitude over being accepted into the Avengers' ranks. These emotions were often foreign and somewhat confusing to him, though. He would keep them restrained for long spans of time, only for then to erupt in moments of tremendous fury or grief.

Beyond his look, his powers, and his personality, another aspect of the Vision I found captivating was the fact that family relationships were played up as such a focus for an artificial being. As mentioned earlier, the Vision was created by the android Ultron, who in turn had been created by then-Avenger Hank Pym (also known as the original Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Yellow-jacket, among other identities), with those two treated as the Vision's metaphorical father and grandfather respectively. The Vision and teammate Scarlet Witch fall in love and get married during Steve Englehart's run on Avengers. The Scarlet Witch's brother, Quicksilver, became the Vision's reluctant brother-in-law by default (it was believed for many years that X-Men antagonist Magneto was the siblings' father, though this has been retconned away in recently). Additionally, it was revealed shortly after his introduction that the Vision's mind was based on the brainwave patterns of the character Wonder Man, and the two would grow to view each other as something like brothers, which would earn them the ire of Wonder Man's biological brother, the villainous Grim Reaper. Family is such an important part of who the Vision is as a character that his current series revolves around the concept of the Vision creating a new family in his likeness and the results of forcing such a dynamic.

The Vision hasn't always been a very likeable character. During a run by Roger Stern, the Vision interfaces with the sentient world-computer of the Eternals (a powerful race of beings that live on Titan, the moon of Saturn) to speed up his recovery following a devastating injury. The side effect of this interface, however, is that it alters his way of thinking, causing him to decide that the best possible course of action was for him to take over all of the world's computer systems and set himself up as a benevolent dictator. This subplot ran through the Avengers title for many months before culminating with him becoming an actual antagonist. The Vision eventually overcame this change in his personality and all was set right, with the rest of the team understanding that he hadn't been in his right mind and hadn't been responsible for his actions.

All, however, had not been forgiven by everyone. As an eventual consequence of his earlier actions, the Vision is captured and dismantled by a shadow organization within the US government, an operation orchestrated by former teammate Mockingbird. Unable to restore the Vision's original synthetic skin, West Coast Avengers member Hank Pym creates a new one that is chalky white, giving him a truly spectral appearance. What's more, Wonder Man is unwilling to allow his brainwave patterns to be copies again to restore the Vision's emotions. Now cold and purely logical, the Vision informs the Scarlet Witch that he considers their marriage null and void as he no longer has any emotional connection to her (writer/artist John Byrne even renders the Vision as no longer anatomically correct, the contrary of which had been implied by previous writers of his former body). He soon abandons his wife to go serve on the east coast team, where he feels his abilities would make him a more logical component. Rather than being a long running subplot building toward a well defined resolution, however, this would be a status quo change for the character, one that would go undisputed for roughly five years.

(I want to go on record as saying that this was one of the most disheartening story arcs, as part of one of the most disheartening runs, I've read in comics. I'll be talking about it in much greater detail at a later time).

While these stories might not of been great for the Vision himself, they were devices that advanced the plots of several Avengers story arcs, and events that affected the Marvel universe as a whole, years, and even decades, later. Since then, he's been returned to his true nature, destroyed, and revived over and over. Every time he's been out of circulation for any significant amount of time, it has always felt like the Avengers have been somewhat lacking. Every time he's been incorporated back into the team it's felt like a little piece of my childhood has come home.

Episode 2 - A Closet Full of Long Boxes

When I was in elementary school, my favorite game to play at recess, or really any time I had to opportunity to run around outside and I could get at least one other kid my age to cooperate, was (surprise) superheroes.  Now, keep in mind, this was the early eighties, deep in rural farm-country Ohio. The first of the cartoons which would lead to the popularization of then lesser known superheros, was about a decade out. The nearest comic book store, even the nearest store of any kind that sold comics on a regular basis, was about an hour's drive away. Suffice it so say, this was neither a time nor a place where comic book heroes were prolific.

Fortunately, as I've mentioned previously, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, who lived much closer to places where at least news-stand comic books could be procured. As such, my knowledge of lesser known characters was more extensive that that of most of my classmates.

Movies and cartoons of mainstream characters were current at the time, so I was usually able to find at least one victim to humor me. It would usually begin with the other kid(s) asking me what character I wanted to be. I'd usually pick some obscure character from the X-Men, the Defenders, or, most often, a half baked idea of a particular member of the Avengers (more on this character next episode), followed by a long description of what they looked like and what they could do.  After these epic and informative diatribes, my playmate would often return with something like , "OK whatever. I guess I'll be Superman".

Sigh.

Eventually, as I got a little older, when I would ask another kid what superhero he wanted to be, the answer would be "I don't".  I realized then that my knowledge of more esoteric superheroes had outgrown my contemporaries, as much as their interests had outgrown me.

When I was ten, however, I met a kid named Wade. It became very apparent that Wade liked comic books and superheroes at least as much as I did, and we quickly became friends. After a few weeks, I rode Wade's bus from school to his house for our first official outside-of-school hang out. Wanting to show off what I thought of as my impressive comic book collection, I brought a handful of my finest pedigrees, namely a few battered copies of the Defenders, a battered copy of the Avengers, a battered copy of Captain America (notice a pattern?), and a copy of Rom.

(Don't worry. If you're not familiar with any titles or characters I reference I'll probably cover something about them eventually. If you can't wait that long .....well, that's what Wikipedia is for.)

Wade showed me his room when we got to his house. It was immediately clear that, in terms of comic book fandom, I was out of my league. The walls of Wade's room were plastered with comic posters. It was a thing of beauty. It was pretty clear that he was more of a DC guy than me, but since I just kind of floundered around and picked up a little bit of everything anyway, I can't with any kind of retrospective honesty say that I was a clearly defined Marvelite at the time anyway.

After letting me recover from my moment of shock and awe, Wade asked me if I wanted to see his collection. While, of course, eager to peruse a new batch of comics, and curious to see what someone else might collect, my expectations were fairly meager. My "collection" at this time, after all, had been pretty much just a dresser drawer full of poorly maintained issues (a few of which had long ago forever shed their covers) of whatever random thing had caught my attention, and I didn't have any other standard by which to compare.

Wade, however, opened (what I remember to be, thirty something years later) a walk-in closet, with shelves full of well stocked comic book long boxes. I was stunned, not only at the amount of comics he had accumulated, many of which were older than than we were, but at the care that had been shown them. Wade's comics were standing upright in the boxes, each bagged and boarded, none of them worn and haggard from misuse. They were arranged alphabetically by title, and then numerically by issue, as opposed to being tossed haphazardly in a pile.

To modern, younger readers this might not seem like such a big deal. Keep in mind, though, that this was at a time when comic book stores were still relatively few and far between, and in a place where they were nonexistent. To me, this was a game changer. In the immortal words of male model Hansel ("He's so hot right now"), it changed my "whole perspective on shit".

During my friendship with Wade I came to view each issue of each comic not just as an individual story, but as a thread in an every growing tapestry of history and continuity. I learned to better understand what I did and didn't like, to move on from just sampling titles to begin actively collecting issues of specific titles as they were released. I also learned not just to appreciate the stories within the comics, but to respect the books themselves as the vehicles by which those stories are delivered to our imaginations and consciousnesses.

Sadly for our friendship, my family and moved to another state a few years later, and Wade and I lost touch. Oddly enough, it was around this time that my collection started to peak, as I now had better access to comic book stores, as well as the paraphernalia to preserve my comics. To this day, however, I still view my friendship with Wade as the catalyst that helped me progress from a comic book hobbyist to an actual collector.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Episode 1 - Climbing the Fourth Wall (or, how I got into comics)

I've liked superheroes for literally as long as I can remember. It's been an almost forty year relationship, one that hasn't always gone smoothly. We've taken breaks from each other here and there, and we even broke up for a couple of years back in the early 90s. We've always gotten back together though.

My love of superheroes started when I was four years old, in 1978 (yes, I'm old).
Like a lot of younger kids in those days, my gateway to superheroes came primarily in the form of two cartoons. The first was a syndicated run of the 1960's Spider-Man cartoon, the one with the catchy theme song that was eventually covered by the Ramones. The second was a Saturday morning cartoon known as the Super Friends.

For those of you that aren't familiar, the Super Friends were an extremely family friendly version of the Justice League of America, produced by Hannah -Barbera (the Scooby-Doo people) and distributed by ABC, beginning in 1973. The line up for much of the series consisted of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin, and Aquaman, as well as, in a very Scooby-esque fashion, various incarnations of a pair of "groovy teens" and their anthropomorphic pet that tagged along and "helped".

One of my literally earliest memories is me four year old me sitting on the floor of my living room with my dad and watching the Super Friends. By then the line up had expanded to also include the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman.

In retrospect, this is not the greatest superhero cartoon ever made for children, but at four years of age I couldn't get enough of it. Not surprisingly, then, my first actual comic book was the Justice of America, specifically issue 158. In it, a well intentioned but misguided and arrogant alien hero named Ultraa (no, the extra "a" is not a typo) steals the Justice League's powers with some kind of ray gun, a challenge the heroes must overcome at the last minute to defeat the Injustice Gang.

The Justice League roster in this issue is composed of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and a character I hadn't been previously familiar with, Red Tornado. The Injustice Gang was also made up of characters I hadn't heard of before, such as Chronos and the Mirror Master.

Not to be uncharitable to the creators and editors behind this particular issue of this particular comic, but I didn't care for it very much. If you'd asked me why at the time I couldn't have really told you. One thing it impressed upon me though, was that there was a world of characters that existed outside of the range of the cartoons. Even with this understanding, though,  if I'd been left to my own devices with just this one comic I probably would have lost interest in the genre beyond the television and movie adaptation of various comic book characters. 

A short time later, however, someone (probably my paternal grandfather) bought me a copy of Amazing Spider-Man # 187. Here Spidey and Captain America team up to save a little boy, who has been infected with some kind of contagion, from Electro.  (Note: I'm sure I'm remembering the details of this issue very poorly. It was a LONG time ago).

Like I already mentioned, I was a fan of the 60s Spider-Man cartoon as a kid. While I liked the Super Friends, I was crazy about Spidey. The Spider-Man cartoon went into some detail of Peter Parker's private life, and even had an origin issue, whereas the characters in the Super Friends were largely presented as one dimensional in characterization.

Getting to hold an actual Spider-Man adventure in my hands, not one that was part of a coloring book or one of those "turn the page when you here the ding" records, was a huge deal to me. This solidified my status as an official fan the superhero comic book genre.

At this point, though, I was still largely tethered to other forms of media that represented the various comic book heroes. Spider-Man and Electro were both in the old cartoon. I knew Captain America from a couple of made-for-tv movies that Marvel had put out at the time. There were also, of course, the Superman movie, and the Wonder Woman and Incredible Hulk TV shows. It would be about three years later that I began to branch out, to become a fan of characters that were soley of the comics proper.

I should back up a bit and give a little more context to my "collection" from back in the day. I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. My folks would drop me off with them at least every third weekend, the first half of every Christmas break, and for weeks at a time during the summer.  My grandpa was really good at indulging my cousins and I, and for me that indulgence usually revolved around taking me to the local Stop-and-Go (think one of those big gas stations that sells a little of everything, only without the gas pumps), and buying me a small handful of comics. One of those comics that he bought me on one of these expeditions in 1981, was Uncanny X-Men # 149.

Here, the X-Men (Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Kitty Pryde) are sent by Professor X to investigate the artic base where they were held captive by Magneto years ago. Once there, they are attacked by Garokk, a minion of Magneto. Garokk quickly incapacitates the more experienced members of the X-Men, but is defeated at the end of the end of the issue, due in part to the intervention of Kitty, their junior team member.

The reason I put more details here than I did about my previous two comics is because I read the MESS out of this book when I was a kid. Here was a team that, in this incarnation, had NEVER been in a cartoon before.

(NOTE: A montage of panels of comics featuring the original X-Men were cobbled together into a very cheap form of animation in the 60s as part of "The Marvel Super Heroes". A version of the above lineup would make a cameo appearance one month later at the end of an episode of "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends".)

There was the gorgeous lady with white hair in this leather bikini thing who could make wind and lightning and stuff. There was this super acrobatic blue furred guy with a tail. There was this big guy who could turn into metal, and this younger girl who could pass through walls and people. Of course there was the guy with the AWESOME tan and brown costume with the metal claws.

This issue showcased each character's abilities well, something crucial for a new reader. It also gave a brief visual summary of the X-Men's conflict with Magneto over the years. Most importantly, though, it showed each character's individual personality. Kitty Pryde was the overenthusiastic, awkward fan girl. Storm was the compassionate but stern mother figure. Colossus was noble but shy, Nightcrawler was something of a prankster, and Wolverine was the the brash irreverent guy with a temper.

This was what I had been looking for. Whenever I would play superheroes with my friends, they would always want to Superman, or Batman, or Spider-Man, characters that everyone knew. I didn't want to identify with everyone else's characters. I wanted characters that lesser known, that weren't mainstream, but that were fleshed out and "real". I'd looked at and picked up a tiny handful of other comics in the past couple of years, but this was the first comic that had given me all of those elements, that had given me characters that my seven year old self could think of as "mine".

It was this sense of ownership that helped me define myself as a kid. I wasn't as motivated as the kids who were good at athletics. I wasn't as focused as the kids who were good at academics. I knew something, however, that those other kids didn't, and that knowledge was empowering. I gained a moral compass and a sense of ethics when the adult males in my life didn't necessarily have the emotional fortitude to be the role models I needed them to be.

Over the next few years I didn't so much collect comics as I did sample them, picking up a little of everything on those infrequent excursions to the sparsely populated comic book rack, slowly learning what was out there in the fictional worlds of the Big Two, discovering what I liked and what I didn't. When I was ten I met and became best friends with the only kid I'd met who's love of comics equalled, and in truth vastly surpassed my own, opening my world view of the depth and richness of those worlds tremendously (more on that friend in a later episode). As I got into my late teens, as I gained greater independence and access to an actual comic book store, my collection began to skyrocket.

As I've grown older, as the market has changed, as my personal tastes have changed, and as my personal responsibilities have changed and grown, the quantity and frequency of comics I collect has decreased. I've switched from a weekly visit to the comic book store and a closet full of long boxes, to a digital comics app on my smart phone with an ever changing line up of downloaded titles. Weeks may go by between purchases, while I wait for my interest to peak, or while I patient stalk online reviews and wait for a collected edition to be released. My climb along the fourth wall may have slowed in this respect, but my fascination for what lays on the other side has never fully faded away.