Monday, August 31, 2009

funnybooks revisited.

When I was a kid, I read comic books. I probably should've been playing sports more, but oh well.

I was a reader, not a collector. Sure, the idea of the comics that I bought being someday worth money was as cool as it would be to any capitalist kid, but I wasn't very interested in keeping them in special UV-resistant bags on acid free board in a cool, dry place. I wanted to read them, and then read them again. If the colors flaked a little around the staples or the pages got creased or the spine started to roll, too bad.

Marvel and DC were the two biggest publishers and probably still are today - sort of like the Democratic and Republican parties or the Coke and Pepsi of comics. Sure, there were some independents, but Marvel and DC pretty much sucked all of the air out of the room. I was into Marvel--Superman and Batman were classic characters even then and cool, but something about DC seemed too plain, too formal, too staid for my taste. Marvel just felt more hip, more cool, more energetic, more alive, more willing to take a chance, edgier. DC was a little too square.

Marvel had cooler characters - Frank Miller's Daredevil was my favorite, followed by the Avengers, then the X-Men. My discovery of comics came just as John Byrne's run as artist on the X-Men was winding down with the Dark Phoenix saga -- that's right, a saga--and he was white-hot, easily one of, the premier artists in the entire industry. Just a few months after ending his stint on the X-Men, he took over as writer and artist of one of Marvel's flagship titles, the Fantastic Four, dubbed--with typical Marvel bombast--"the World's Greatest Comic Magazine" (notice the use of the more sophisticated "comic magazine" instead of "comic book." Stan Lee may not have been the greatest writer ever, but he was one hell of a promoter). But around the time that my interest in comics peaked, the FF was running on vapors, trudging through uninspired stories and artwork.

Putting John Byrne on the Fantastic Four was one of the smartest things Marvel ever did and couldn't have happened at a better time. He completely reinvigorated the book, made it relevant again to comics readers, recharged it -- all by going back to the roots of it.

I'm rereading Byrne's FF run now, thanks to the "Marvel Visionaries" (again with that hyperbole) trade paperback series, full-color reproductions of comics that I haven't read in almost three decades but remember like yesterday -- Doctor Doom, Galactus, the X-Men. Frankie Raye. Ego, the Living Planet. Quicksilver and the Inhumans. Byrne gave the FF back their cosmic reach while staying focused on the four-character core. This is back when comic books were 50 or 60 cents an issue, $1 for the occasional double-sized edition, not the $2 or $3 or more they routinely are today.

The artwork is rock solid, superbly detailed when necessary for the right sense of scope, full of Byrne's typically sensual curves and smooth dynamism. The stories have aged surprisingly well -- they have the feel of an overarching vision and Byrne was deft with his storylines, unafraid to plant plot hints that wouldn't be resolved for an issue, sometimes two or three. Sure, some of the action is cheesy and there are thudding in-jokes and the dialogue is pure corn syrup in places, but that's forgiveable. It's comics, after all.

I liked to draw when I was a kid, and I suppose I wasn't completely without talent. Once upon a time, my dream was to become a comic book artist and writer myself, following in the footsteps of Frank Miller and John Byrne and others. I couldn't grasp a more fulfilling career than to sit around drawing the amazing adventures of superheroes all day. I had hundreds of comics and even How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which showed you how to break down items like handguns and airplanes and cars into a series of geometric shapes and how to draw figures and faces and how to portray action in that Marvel style. It even went into inking and coloring and lettering. It was a really cool book and I fooled around with it for a few years, even developing my own crude comics, a super-hero team called "The Victors" and a lone adventurer named "Captain Canadian," stolen almost totally from Byrne's own Vindicator character from a series called Alpha Flight.

But my comic book career never went anywhere because I didn't try hard enough. I could try to blame my parents for not supporting me more, but that would be a cop-out. They gave me drawing tables and pencils and pens and art lessons and all kinds of other support that I was just too callow, like most children of that age, to recognize for the gifts they were. It all comes down to me --the fact that I didn't want to sit up in my room drawing for hours and hours on end, learning and honing skills, just proves that I didn't want it badly enough. It's a shame, really. If I could turn back the clock to when I was thirteen or fourteen, maybe I'd force myself to work harder at it, to really try to make a name for myself there, but it just wasn't in me.

Alas. But I'm enjoying these comics from my youth, at least. I feel a little bit self-conscious reading comics again, and writing about it, to boot - but what the hell. Good stories are worthwhile, and it's nice when, every once in awhile--sometimes a great while--nostalgia doesn't let you down.

My Top Five comic-book artists:

1) Frank Miller - Daredevil, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
2) John Byrne - X-Men, Fantastic Four
3) Walt Simonson - Thor, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Alien: The Illustrated Story
4) Mike Golden - The 'Nam, ROM: Spaceknight, The Micronauts
5) George Perez - The Avengers, The New Teen Titans

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