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.

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