Four Decades of Fridays… part four
It had been a tumultuous few years, for me and for comics. But by 1997 things had settled down some. I had gotten most of my personal stuff in order and was making a fair living freelancing as a writer and illustrator for various publications, as well as picking up a few hours a week at a local printshop.
None of it involved comics, except just peripherally here and there. I kind of liked it that way, to be honest. That way comics remained something recreational, something I could still enjoy just as a fan. I’d noticed that, as soon as I started actually selling fiction, I’d started reading with a professional’s eye, almost like I was measuring what I read as competition. Which is not to say I actually ranked myself in the same company as the guys I was reading; I am occasionally arrogant, but not delusional. No, it was just… I guess you’d call it a kind of awareness of what was going on backstage, so to speak. It made it a little harder to get into a book if I had one eye on the technical side of things.
And I didn’t ever want to start reading comics that way. I still, even at thirty-six, treasured comics and superheroes and responded to them primarily as a fan. I’d have hated comics to become just another business proposition, so I largely avoided trying to get that kind of work. I was happy to be writing and drawing for various young-adult and scholastic markets and keep comics a hobby.
Nevertheless, it was harder to find the good stuff than it had been. After the glories of the eighties it seemed like everyone had self-destructed. First was gone, Eclipse was gone, Comico was gone… and in its place we got Image, which seemed to be all style and no substance.
Never had I felt like such a crotchety old man as when I looked at what the Image founders were doing in the early 90’s. Spawn, Youngblood, and Shadowhawk seemed so determinedly anti-everything that I regarded as “good comics” that I honestly wondered if it was MY problem, because they seemed to be the agreed-upon Hot New Thing at the time. The big companies were flailing around trying to find something that had the same air of smug, stupid adolescence that the early Image books did. Everywhere you looked in the superhero genre landscape there were over-rendered steroid cases starring in pin-up books.
Marvel, especially, seemed trapped in some sort of spiral of desperation. Their great coup of 1996 had been persuading Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to come back and do “Heroes Reborn”, which turned into such a trainwreck that Liefeld hadn’t even finished his. I glanced at the Jim Lee Fantastic Four and couldn’t figure out what all the shouting was about; the rendering was just… off. Lee’s hyper-cross-hatched detailing tended to slow everything down, it was a series of static engravings instead of comics.
It was beautifully, painstakingly drawn, sure; but there was no movement. It’s the only way I can think of to explain my basic distaste for that style in general, and seeing it on the Fantastic Four in particular. For someone who’d experienced the Kirby and Buscema versions, it was an approach that seemed utterly mismatched to the strip. It didn’t look bad so much as just wrong to my eyes. And as for the Liefeld Cap… well, today, of course, it’s the blogosphere’s favorite pinata. We all laugh about it now. Even then, Marvel realized it was a blunder and ended up doing damage control six months into the run.
But as it was coming out I was just sort of horrified and baffled. This was the great coup? Waid and Garney were replaced by THIS? What the hell?
And the Spider-books, long a reliable source of amusement –not necessarily setting the world on fire, but, you know, baseline-good at least — had gone wholly off the rails as far as I could tell. The character was almost unrecognizable by the mid-90’s, what with clones and the new Vulture and the female Doc Ock and everything else.
Which is not to say that everything Marvel was putting out was awful. There were a few bright spots. Untold Tales of Spider-Man was a fun book, the kind of fun book that I’d begun to wonder if Marvel even remembered how to do any more. Honestly, reading it I almost felt as though Busiek and Oliffe were doing something subversive by producing something so unpretentious and cheerful, it was so clearly off the reservation.
And there were some interesting licensed projects. I quite liked what they were doing with the Star Trek books after snagging the rights back from DC, particularly Early Voyages. I guess it didn’t do too well for them, since it only lasted a year and a half or so before getting canceled in mid-story, but I really enjoyed it.
The great unsung Marvel success of the mid-90’s as far as I was concerned were the series of prose novels from Byron Preiss at iBooks. Those were almost always a good bet, particularly the ones from Diane Duane, Christopher Golden, and Greg Cox. They stand to this day as the longest-running and most successful series of superhero prose adaptations, I think. I was especially fond of Golden’s X-Men and Daredevil books but I enjoyed them all. In fact, at that point the regular X-Men comics had proliferated so, and had become so impenetrable to the casual reader — even the trade paperback collections were hopelessly fragmented and impossible to follow– that this was the only way I was able to check in with the X-characters without getting completely confused.
And this was also when Marvel’s Essential line got underway. It took them a while to get the packaging right — the early ones were remarkably ugly and the printing was often substandard — but I was happy just to see these books at all.
DC’s batting average was a little higher with me, but there as well I sensed a certain desperation, a tendency to lunge for the short-term, hype-driven sale. I had noticed this especially in the Superman books, where it seemed that the stories were built around one six-month gimmick after another.
I was less appalled by Electric Superman than most — after the “Death of Superman” hype storm, the response to most of these manufactured events generally was a snort and a jeer. This was going to be Superman for the next century? Yeah, pull the OTHER one. Maybe when the toys and coloring books change too, then I’ll believe it. Whatever. This too would pass.
(Athough I was vaguely annoyed about the design. If DC really wanted to re-do the look and the powers, okay, but I think Dennis Miller nailed it when he said Electric Supes looked like someone set a gay ski instructor on fire. Once I heard that, it was all I could think of.)
The Bat books fared a little better, After Knightfall, Knightquest, KnightsEnd, Contagion, and Legacy, editor Denny O’Neil admitted that a certain level of event-crossover fatigue had set in. He had set a mandate that for at least a year, they were going to concentrate on just doing solid one-offs and two-parters. I don’t know that this effort produced anything really memorable — you have to give this to the Event Hype Books, people remember them — but Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan on Detective, Doug Moench and Kelley Jones on Batman, and Alan Grant and whoever on Shadow of the Bat were all doing good solid comics.
Certainly it was a step up from all the Knightfall crossover craziness.
But there was a certain sense of loss there, too. It felt like everyone was pulling back somehow. Denny O’Neil on Azrael was always okay, and occasionally pretty good; but it was nowhere near the Denny O’Neil we’d been getting on The Question. And certainly, Grant Morrison on JLA was a delight, the most fun the book had been in years…
…but it still felt like it was a step back from what Morrison had been doing on Animal Man and the Doom Patrol.
For the good DC stuff you had to go looking. You wouldn’t find it on the big-name books. Peter David was quietly turning Supergirl into a must-read title, the gem of the Super books.
And likewise, David was doing remarkable things on Aquaman as well.
They were terribly uneven — but you always had the sense that Peter David was swinging for the fences on those books, they were never dull. Unlike his Hulk, which Onslaught and Heroes Reborn had very nearly crippled by 1996. (His legendary tenure on that title would draw to a close within a year or so.)
Sandman was gone, but Sandman Mystery Theatre was still plugging along.
And Starman was really starting to hit its stride, too.
Certainly the comics landscape, overall, was looking a little better than the truly stupid years of 1991 to 1993. But it was still a long way from the glories of 1986, with so many of the indie publishers gone. Really, Fantagraphics and Dark Horse were the only ones left from that wonderful decade. Yeah, Concrete was still kind of hanging in there…
And even though Ms. Tree was gone we still had Max Collins on Mike Danger. But Tekno-Comics was no Eclipse, or even a Renegade.
Speaking of renegades, Dave Sim was still off in his corner doing his Cerebus thing. But even that felt a little like the bloom was off the rose. Whether it was Sim’s personal life bleeding into his work or what, it sure didn’t feel like he was having as much fun as he used to.
Overall you could sense a malaise hanging over the comics landscape, a feeling of nervousness, especially with the superhero publishers. Companies and creators alike were retrenching, playing it safe, going for the sure thing. Nobody was quite over the scare of the speculator boom-and-bust.
As for me, well, I backed into the job I was born to do that year… and at the same time collided with the elephant in the room that nobody in American comics wanted to acknowledge.
See, that Christmas, I was looking for a gift for Sam, who was the five-year-old son of my old college roomie. Sam liked to draw, and I thought, well, I’ll get him a book on how to draw and some pens and a sketch pad. Except there weren’t any books on how to draw cartoons, not for littler kids. It was all high-school age and up, at least it was then. Younger kids just got stupid books like 101 FUN THINGS WITH STICKS AND FELT, or whatever.
So I thought, well, hell, I work at a printshop, I’m a writer, I’ll just write something. I put together a little twenty-page manual on cartooning for Sam and bound it and it was a big hit. I liked it well enough when it was done to hold on to an extra copy. I had the idea I’d shop it around a little, try and find a publisher.
Simultaneously, the printshop I occasionally worked at was doing this thing called the Adopt-A-School Program, where the shop would partner up with a local school and provide various kinds of support. Ours was a place called Gatzert Elementary, which was a really tough inner-city school, these kids had NOTHING. I thought, well, I’ve got some time, I can volunteer there.
So later that week I was having lunch with my friend Monika Lidman, who is an amazing artist here in Seattle, she and her husband John have gallery shows and stuff all the time. Monika asked what’s new and I told her, yadda yadda, volunteering at Gatzert, yadda yadda, wrote a kid’s book on drawing, yadda yadda.
Monika looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “You know, you could combine those. Teach a cartooning class at Gatzert. I bet the Seattle Arts Commission would give you a huge grant to do it, too.”
So that’s how it started, chasing a grant. I pitched the idea to Gatzert and they lunged at it. Within three days of suggesting it I had six teachers lined up who wanted in on this. Thirty kids each, a hundred and fifty total. One day a week I lived at Gatzert, running laps around the place, hopping from one classroom to the next. It was insane.
I’d thought I could just talk them through what was in my manuscript and that would be it, but I found out that it was woefully inadequate. So I was literally inventing my curriculum as I went, and I got the idea of doing a class ‘zine as a final project, and it grew from there.
I never did get the grant, but at the end of the thirteen weeks I’d committed to, I had a nice little curriculum all worked out and two job offers, one from the Seattle Parks Department and one from the YMCA to come and do this class for them. I eventually ended up accepting both of them.
And that’s how I got the gig teaching comics to middle-school kids. It’s also where I discovered what “kids today” were actually into.
One of the ways I discovered my inadequacy at teaching comics to a younger audience was my total lack of manga expertise. If I’d thought I was the crotchety old fart before when I saw superhero fans going nuts over the Image founders, that was nothing compared to how ignorant and out-of-date I felt trying to get caught up with what my students were into.
Jim Lee and over-rendered steroid heroes was a style thing. Manga was almost a different comics language. The pacing, the construction, everything about the manga idiom was different from what I was used to — but the kids knew it the way I knew Jack Kirby and Neal Adams. To this day I’m still not terribly “fluent” in manga — though I’ve learned enough to get through my classes without getting laughed out of the room.
Certainly I’ve learned enough to know that while we were all inside the Marvel/DC/superhero bubble obsessing over “the future of comics”, the future of comics had leapfrogged right over us — from Japan into Barnes & Noble. Just to give you an idea, here’s a random sample of student work from the last ten years. I literally just grabbed this out of the box I keep “class stuff” in.
Not seeing a lot of Marvel or DC influence there.
Sometimes it makes me a little sad. I remember the gateway out of my miserable family life that comics provided me in my youth, and I occasionally wish my students could have that same experience. Then I remember that they are– it’s just manga flavored.
God knows comics have changed a lot over the last forty years, and so have I. But on the other hand, they’re still around, they’re still fun, kids still love them, and heaven help me, so do I. Thinking of that usually cheers me right up again.
See you next week.