Here’s a new shtick. There are a lot of cool comic book blogs out there (see our sidebar for a list of a bunch of them), but I guess it is hard to pick which ones you think you’d like to read. So I figure, each week, I will feature a guest entry by a really cool comic blogger, and you all can then check out that comic blog after you see how cool they are from their guest bit. Our first guest entry comes from Jog, of Jog – The Blog.
My Bold Adventures in Time Travel
My great aunt could always recall the comics that used to be in the newspapers back in the Depression. “Those were the worst days,” she’d often remind me, but the funnies never failed to lighten the load a bit, as much as any ‘load’ truly registers on a little girl out in the wide-open yawn of an older Pennsylvania. Her special favorite was The Katzenjammer Kids. I do believe it was that strip – drawn by Harold Knerr at the time – and not the competing doppelganger strip The Captain and the Kids by original Katzenjammer creator Rudolph Dirks, because it was the very sound of the title that most appealed to her.
Katzenjammer. She’d pronounce it ‘cats-nn-jammer.’
When surprised, she’d exclaim “Jeepers Katzenjammer Kids!”
Rolls off the tongue.
She bought me all the comics I can remember from the latter half of my single-digit life. Just as she didn’t know (nor likely care much) of the behind-the-panels details of newspaper comics, she didn’t have any idea that those Mickey Mouse comics that Gladstone was putting out in 1988 happened to be packed with reprints of earlier adventures, some of them dating back to – wait for it – the Depression.
And thus, my 7 year-old eyes were filled with Floyd Gottfredson images from 1935, Mickey and Horace hopping in their automobile to chase Pete around on a treasure hunt out in the desert. Oh boy, that thing lasted three big issues (#237-239), and I couldn’t stop talking about it to kids I’d see in grade school.
I absorbed the rhythms of an expert daily strip man’s storytelling beats, but in the cozy pamphlet format. It was pleasant – a joke, a plot point, a joke, a movement, an encounter, defying the parameters of the page but still master of its past domain enough to whisper in my ear from across the gulf of over half a century. On the other side was my great aunt, her eyes maybe skipping over Mickey to see what Hans and Fritz were up to.
But our eyes flickered in the same way, I imagine.
I later saw those exact same Mickey Mouse strips, arranged in the proper daily order row by row, in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics – it’s a brilliant, vital collection, and you should own a copy. It was first published in 1978, before I was born. I just read it a few years ago. We’re often staring into the past, us comics readers, the handsome context of one modernity perhaps informing the personal experience of a future child, himself gazing backward to a day of crackling talkies and the New Deal.
How bloody unstuck in time.
It goes forward and backward. Perhaps the most personally potent of the comics my great aunt bought me came a few months later: Spectacular Spider-Man #143, by Gerry Conway and Sal Buscema. Deadline in Dallas, the issue was titled, something of a bridging story serving to tie up subplots simmering through the prior storyline (a big fight with notable albino Tombstone) and establish the grounding of a forthcoming plot (something to do with the Lobo Brothers). To give it all a boost, the Punisher got to fight Spidey that issue.
I’d only heard of the Punisher before due to my great aunt having bought me prior issues of that Spider-Series; Frank Castle didn’t participate in the Tombstone throwdown, but we’d occasionally get detoured over to the crazed killer’s capture by thugs of the Kingpin, a D-list supervillain called the Persuader trying to break Frank’s will and use him as a tool to destroy the Kingpin’s enemies. The Persuader was on the cover of issue #143, not the most heartening sight in his full-body white-and-gold ensemble, some sort of hypnotic disc splashed across his chest – it didn’t matter too much, since the Punisher shot him to death at the end of the issue.
And that was all I could remember of that comic for a good long time.
The Punisher was trying to kill Spider-Man, but his will was not truly broken, and so he turned around and sent a bullet screaming into the Persuader’s chest, and I do believe the villain fell into a nearby swimming pool.
There was blood.
Ooooh, there was blood.
I won’t mince words – I’ve been attracted to violence in comics since that day, right near the beginning. At first, it had a strange effect on me; I can recall sitting in my mother’s car at some point in the early ’90s, flipping through an issue of the video game magazine GamePro. They had a semi-serious comics feature in the early issues, The Adventures of GamePro, concerning the exploits of a superhero-type fellow who’d enter various hot new games and fool around. That particular issue he went into the universe of Blaster Master, and the monsters got a little rough with him. Crimson grue dripped from tears in his spandex sleeves, and I was all aflutter, literally dizzy at the still-novel sight of cartoon characters shedding some plasma.
Man, if only NES graphics could get good enough for that!
I had friend around that time, 1994, who also read some comics. We both liked violent superheroes, the Punisher and others. Oh yes, I had by then jumped on to Frank Castle’s three monthly books (my favorite at the time was Chuck Dixon’s and John Romita Jr.’s early The Punisher War Zone), that initial 1988 appearance having left its mark on me.
It was somewhat perverse – my friend and I really loved the nasty costumed heroes, but we’d rarely think of looking outside the confines of Marvel/DC/Image to sip on something with looser content restrictions. Part of it surely was that we had limited options for purchase, our local shops rarely stocking anything but the most widely commercial material, but some of it was just us – comics outside the preset spectrum of acceptability were doubtlessly crap, and even the likes of Valiant were irredeemably dorky to our minds. Thus, we respected a most strange form of chastity, slavering over the more explicit corners of comics lines that would never really go all that far. It was simply what we knew.
And what we argued about.
“Spider-Man’s a loser,” my friend would taunt, “He whines about other heroes killing people, and he always just sends the bad guys to prison. That never works.”
“Maybe he’s trying to go for a higher thing… you know?” I’d weakly retort, being a good Spider-Fan but not predisposed to Peter Parker’s moral outlook, “It’s like he thinks a real hero should have to kill…”
“Bull. Soldiers kill people,” my friend would inevitably say, the echoes of Iraq War Then still somehow strong, “The Punisher used to be a soldier. He gets that. He’s cool, it’s realistic.”
And so on.
A few year earlier, at the height of Iraq War Then, a whole bunch of friends and I were known to sit around and debate which nation could kick everyone’s ass, given the proper alliances and treaties. Do kids still do that in the era of Iraq War Now? I’d hate to hear of an Earth denied all of the splendor of a bunch of 10 year-olds busting out their political science chops, intellectual fire enough to set the evening burning like midday. But nobody ever got killed in those things on the road to the USA’s inevitable victory.
The Punisher would never kill Spider-Man either. I even knew that at the beginning. It was the beauty of collateral damage that made all the difference.
But the Punisher did other things. Any mention of he and Spider-Man together would take me right back to 1988, and my great aunt’s blue couch in her television room, upon which I would recline and read the books she’d buy me. There was Deadline in Dallas again. There was Frank Castle, having stained the Persuader’s disco flashback getup with a gunshot to the heart. Spider-Man got mad at him in that issue. He told him that they could have got those goons to give up information to the police, vital evidence to use in court to have the Kingpin arrested. Needless to say, Frank was nonplussed at such formalism, preferring to just hunt down the Kingpin himself later.
Now that was great! The Punisher walked right into Spider-Man’s own book and told him off, tore down his cherished beliefs in a few pithy comments and walked away the hero of the day, having put the bad guys down.
A story to turn around in the head, at that age. But as time went by, I got to thinking. Didn’t Spider-Man have a point? Isn’t there a certain complexity that Frank might have been missing?
Sometimes those questions would bubble up, even for years after, and I can honestly say it was the first time I’d been made to really think about the pull between instant gratification and the deeper considerations of restraint in popular entertainment. I’m not going to say that Conway’s script was an indelible masterwork of moral complexity, but it got a kid thinking in the way that only a lucky first exposure to such things could.
Like I mentioned before, I’d start reading an awful lot of the Punisher’s adventures, but I’d be more aware of what the character’s actions meant, or could mean. The start of reading things a little bit deeper.
I mean, I loved the guy, but maybe Spidey had a point too.
Frank Castle is present in so many points of my jumbled life timeline.
He was there in 1988, walking hand-in-hand with my great aunt, forcing a necessary crinkle in my brain matter. Age 7.
He was there in 1994, at the peak of his popularity (he met Archie!!), and when I wasn’t actually reading about him he acted as an emblem of what myself and my friends wanted in comics. Age 13.
He’s still here in 2006, more in tune with the world than ever, right now setting out to shoot to death a corporation obviously based on Enron, just in time for Kenneth Lay to actually go and drop dead. I can confidently say that Garth Ennis has ensured his pull remains strong to even those who drifted in and out of comics. Age 24.
I can see for miles back.
I can see my great aunt’s blue sofa. I can see myself reading The Maxx on there in 1993.
Three guesses who bought me my first Image comic, the year prior.
But I didn’t feel all that right about it. I mean jeez, I was 12 years old! Imagine! Your aunt, great as she was, buying you your comics! I’d think of her emptying out her loose change to buy me the things, and I’d get guilty when I wasn’t feeling silly. I’d want to refuse things. I was going to comics shops own now (Dad would drive) and buying mature books with my own money (Mom gave it to me).
She’d come into the room, me on that sofa, as everyone else ate dessert on Sunday.
“Oh, what are you reading there?” she’d ask.
“A… a comic,” I’d mutter, attempting to fold over the cover of issue #2, hoping that she wouldn’t catch a glimpse of Julie on the cover in an Outback bikini, her Frazetta influences on ample display. Oh god, this kind of maturity was a little too much to show her, even if she wouldn’t care. This isn’t the thing you could think vey clearly about. This wasn’t the playtime urge of kids talking about fantasy battles and abstract superhero concepts of murder and honor. This was down low, this was so visceral that nobody should know of it but I, and even I couldn’t spin it around in my head and take it apart.
God, Frank Castle, where were you when I needed you to kill something and make it safe?!
And so I’d kind of sulk around and stare at the pages of my comic, until the old woman would leave the room quietly.
I’d get kind of sulky about comics as a whole in a few more years, as all my friends moved on.
The next memory burnt into my head involving my great aunt and comics didn’t originate until 2003. I’d gotten back into comics recently, and was building up a new library.
We were having a party at my parents’ house. I had a few books with me, scattered around. At one point, I walked into a room and found her sitting by The Frank Book, that Jim Woodring collection of wordless strips.
“Hey,” I said.
“I like this one,” she smiled.
And I guess Woodring has that type of old-time craft.
Funny what still catches her eye.
I just saw her the other week, in for the 4th of July and a short while after. Lots of old sights in the old town. Bought my Punisher issue at the local store. This time I earned the money.
We ate on Sunday.
I flipped though the newspaper, and I caught a glimpse of the Sunday funnies pages. All six of them, all those little strips crammed in there like sardines.
I think I saw something particularly foolish in Drabble, and I laughed, and I ponted it out to my brother, and he laughed too. And my great aunt noticed our laughter.
“I like the funnies. I like Drabble the best,” she said, and went back to her coffee, and in seconds I’d hit the end of that tiny comics section, its abridged chromatic splendor potent enough when glazed with memory, but over so disquietingly soon.