Are you ready for the summer?
Although science says it’s not summer yet, I’ve got a nice, bucolic, seasonal buzz going. 2009 will be my twenty-fifth summer collecting comic books (not counting that lackadaisical elementary-school period when I just read the things); and while I don’t particularly like sharing stories from the Olden Days, this time it feels appropriate.
Longtime readers of this space may remember that, after a few years of the obligatory “I am in junior high now; I am mature” disavowal, DC’s Star Trek vol. 1 #9 reopened the door to comics. More importantly in that fall of 1984, Trek led to Tales of the Teen Titans #50, and from there to Crisis On Infinite Earths and its companion Who’s Who. By May 1985 I was not only finishing up tenth grade, I was obsessing over the six issues of Crisis which had since been published.
Incredible though it may seem, that was it for me for a while. Until the end of that summer I bought new comics just three Fridays out of every month, each week plunking down my $0.75 (plus tax) for only one new book. I was already spending my lawn-mowing income on D&D materials, so I was pretty careful about long-term comics commitments.
This is not to say that I didn’t read a lot of comics over the summer of 1985. I plowed eagerly through a friend’s runs of New Teen Titans, All-Star Squadron, and Firestorm. I also bought back issues, including a complete (and surprisingly affordable) run of Captain Carrot. By the end of the summer I was buying my own copies of Titans, as well as Blue Devil, Batman, and Detective Comics, plus miniseries like DC Challenge.
Now, I don’t emphasize this as a badge of honor: “oh, I only bought a handful of comics because the rest were unmitigated crap.” At that point I was just getting back into comics, and hadn’t had time to determine what was crap and what wasn’t … but more on that later.
Throughout 1985, Crisis On Infinite Earths commanded my attention. I didn’t get a lot of Crisis crossovers, because the main book was pretty well stuffed to the gills. It arrived (mostly without fail) on the first ship week of every month, delivered 25 (or 48) pages of cosmic carnage, and then left me to pick over the details for the next three or four weeks. Crisis inspired multiple readings not with hidden symbols or deep philosophical meanings; but through a desire to linger over George Perez’s meticulous pencils, and (more importantly) to try and figure out how our heroes could possibly stave off universal Armageddon. For example, issue #10 featured the Spectre wrestling the Anti-Monitor with the future of all creation in the balance. However, running along the bottom tier of panels was a backup story, “The Monitor Tapes.” When I first saw the last panels of the issue shattering into shards of white nothingness, and the Spectre unable to hold reality together, I cursed “The Monitor Tapes.” Clearly the space could have been better used to show the outcome of the big fight!
It was a long month between issues #10 and #11.
Of course, Crisis was steeped in DC continuity, but that was not a big deal because I had only been away from DC for about four years. These days, you’re out of superhero comics for four years, and you miss a dozen universe-altering events. Back then, though, things moved slower (especially at DC), so it wasn’t that hard to figure out what was going on. (Besides, there was Who’s Who.) Regardless, I had missed the Robin/Nightwing and John/Hal shuffles; the debuts of All-Star Squadron, Batman and the Outsiders, Arion, Amethyst, and Infinity, Inc.; Alan Moore on Swamp Thing; and the Flash’s trial. While I didn’t come to Crisis completely green, there was a learning curve.
In fact, I welcomed the learning curve. At fifteen, I was probably just the right age for Crisis On Infinite Earths. Not only did it help reawaken my feelings for these characters, it did so at an ideal time. In 1985, my summer weeks were otherwise punctuated by grass-cutting, D&D sessions, and marching-band practice. I had more than enough time to spend with superhero comics. Often I walked to the local shop, which was only two miles from home, and not far at all from the record store, the used bookstores, or my mom’s office at the university. It was a destination, not an obligation. I grew to anticipate each Friday, especially the weeks with an issue of Crisis.
However, reading and re-reading those issues also helped me develop a critical eye. It wasn’t hard to distinguish Dick Giordano’s inks from Mike DeCarlo’s, and I learned to appreciate how the different styles worked (or didn’t) with Perez’s pencils. I also saw how Marv Wolfman tried to integrate the regular titles’ crossover storylines into Crisis proper; and when those vignettes worked (or didn’t). While it wasn’t quite “everything I know about superhero comics I learned from Crisis On Infinite Earths,” I did pick up a lot.
Accordingly, as 1985 faded into 1986 and DC began rolling out the inevitable post-Crisis relaunches, I considered myself better informed than I had been a year before. I started getting Crisis both for its event nature and because of Wolfman and Perez. (I read the first year and change of New Teen Titans before “maturity” set in.) However, my post-Crisis buying habits came from a more critical place. For example, I could identify precisely why I preferred Wolfman and Jerry Ordway’s Adventures Of Superman to John Byrne’s higher-profile work on the character. Those trips to the comics shop also exposed me to the fan press, mainly Fantagraphics’ Amazing Heroes. 1986 is rightly praised as a banner year in DC’s publishing history, but I wouldn’t have been there without 1985’s blockbuster.
Considering that Crisis probably helped superhero comics fit into the small niche they enjoy today, I’m a little embarrassed to admit its profound influence on me. Nevertheless, there it is. Crisis was very good at two things: surveying much of DC’s fifty-year publishing history, and clearing the decks for the next fifty years. Many fans who had grown up with the Silver Age (or even the Golden) were appalled at Crisis‘ changes. I was not. All things being equal, I wouldn’t have been so destructive; but for a teenager with little else to do and a vast summer vacation to fill, Crisis was a great escape. It opened up DC’s books to me in a way that let me explore them on my own terms. There is nothing like that rush of discovery.
It’s weird, but this summer reminds me of that one. The big event, Blackest Night, isn’t as cosmically comprehensive as Crisis, but that’s not for lack of trying. Although I’ve given Blackest Night a lot of grief, I’ve tried to direct most of it at things other than the story itself. To me, writer Geoff Johns has done some of his best work on Green Lantern, and the same goes for penciler Ivan Reis. They produced the bulk of BN‘s 2007 predecessor, the well-received “Sinestro Corps War,” and thereby helped redefine DC’s model for big event comics. True, the run-up to Blackest Night has featured its share of gratuitous carnage, personified in the vomit-wielding Red Lanterns, but “Sinestro Corps” wasn’t without its gore. If I were fifteen again, I’d probably be ready to eat Blackest Night on a stick. (Not the red vomit, though.)
Indeed, while I don’t know if Blackest Night is the right vehicle for attracting every new reader, I think it’s well-positioned to go after today’s fifteen-year-olds with too much time on their hands and an allowance which needs spending. What’s harder to figure is whether today’s fifteen-year-olds were reading DC’s superhero books in their lackadaisical grade-school years. I can’t imagine how an eleven-year-old would have received Infinite Crisis or its lead-ins — although when I was eleven, the Doom Patrol storyline in New Teen Titans was relatively continuity-heavy. Maybe there are more of those fifteen-year-olds than I think. (Maybe some of them are reading this space like I read Amazing Heroes. Now I feel very old.)
Regardless, I don’t read comics to feel fifteen again. I’ve got quite a different set of obligations today, and I certainly can’t spend as much time on as few comics. Still, thanks to Trinity, I’ve devoted a good bit of the last year digging deep into an enjoyably epic miniseries. The Superman books’ “New Krypton” arc has been pretty engaging, and Wonder Woman‘s “Rise of the Olympian” has been consistently thrilling. Besides Blackest Night, the summer of 2009 promises renewed vigor in the Batman line, beautiful Wednesday Comics pages, and relaunches of old favorites like Doom Patrol and The Flash. It all seems wide-open and full of possibilities, just like a summer should.