HOW I CAME TO BE: THE ORIGIN STORY OF A COMIC BOOK READER
“X-Men,” Mr. Ornelas sneered. “The UN-canny.” He slapped a Dave Cockrum cover down on the laminated table.
In fifth grade study hall, we weren’t allowed to read comic books.
I didn’t know that was a rule. I was ten, and I didn’t own any comic books, other than some war and western comics given to me by some cousins a few years earlier. Comics that remained piled in the back of my closet. Comics I never even flipped through, because they were all brown and green and distinctly unappealing.
These issues of “Uncanny X-Men” belonged to my friend Trevor — the only kid I knew who actually collected comic books, and seemed to know all about them. Trevor was also the first kid I knew who owned an Atari 2600, so he was a good friend to have around.
He brought some issues of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne/Dave Cockrum run to school that day, and because he had them out, and because they looked a lot more interesting than whatever “homework” I was supposed to be finishing in study hall, I picked up an issue and started reading it. It must have been issue #149, entitled “And the Dead Shall Bury the Living!” because it’s the first X-Men comic I ever owned, and I think Trevor gave it to me after that day’s events. Either that, or I bought a copy at our small town grocery shop later that week. It was the newest issue Trevor had, so it must have been still sitting on the dusty shelves of the Lanesborough Supermarket for another few weeks.
We didn’t know about Chris Claremont or John Byrne or Dave Cockrum back in those days. Maybe Trevor did, but he never talked about the writers and artists behind his favorite comic books. He just told us that “Uncanny X-Men” was good, even though I had never heard of any of the characters. I wouldn’t see the X-Men guest star on an episode of “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” for another year or so, and didn’t realize that Iceman had such deep ties to Marvel mythology. I just thought he was a guy who looked like the Silver Surfer but had ice powers. The Silver Surfer I knew, but I have no idea why.
Mr. Ornelas didn’t care much about the strength of the Chris Claremont X-Men run, or the effect it would have on an entire genre of comic books, and he didn’t care that we were spending our study hall period quietly reading instead of, I don’t know, carving Led Zeppelin symbols into the desks or giggling over AC/DC lyrics, which were fashionable things to do in smalltown USA in the early 1980s. All Mr. Ornelas cared about was that we were reading comic books instead of (a) filling out worksheets or (b) reading something will fewer pictures. So we were scolded. We were brought into a room next door to the study hall and yelled at for reading comic books. We were told that it must never happen again.
I didn’t even really understand the one I had been reading. “Uncanny X-Men” #149 relied heavily on plot points from earlier issues, didn’t introduce the characters clearly, and based its emotional climax on a character who had only minor ties to the X-Men themselves. In essence, it was an epilogue to a storyline that I had never read.
I absolutely loved it, of course.
It would be easy to say that’s where my devotion to comic books began — a well-crafted single issue by two of the best superhero comics creators of that era, and the allure of forbidden fruit. The emotional turmoil of Garokk in the ruins of Magneto’s base, combined the humiliation of being chastised by a teacher in school. My ten-year-old psychology was bound up in that one X-Men comic, powerfully so.
Yet, I didn’t buy issue #150. Or #151. Or #152. And though I did pick up “Uncanny X-Men” #153 later that year, I didn’t find enough inside to keep me coming back for more. It was some nonsense about dragons and fairy princesses and swashbuckling. I seem to remember liking it at the time, but clearly not enough to bother reading any future issues. Not for a few years, anyway.
But I was pulled back into superhero comics a bit earlier than that. Even if it wasn’t Wolverine and Colossus and the gang pulling me back in.
It was “Justice League of America” #200, from the winter of that same fifth-grade year, a comic that I would still rank as one of the best single-issues of all time. I didn’t dare read it in school.
This was the first comic I really picked out by myself, without any outside influence. My “collection” of musty war comics and western comics were given to me, and I not only never read them, but I don’t even know what happened to them. Thrown out or given away by my mother, I suppose. I remember the stack being there as a kid, but I know I never added them to any longboxes once I really started caring about comics. And the X-Men comics I bought were inspired by my friend Trevor and my study hall experience.
But “Justice League of America”? That was my choice.
And issue #200 was the best possible place to start (and end, as it turned out, but I couldn’t have known that at the time).
I was familiar with the Justice League characters of course. Unlike the X-Men, the Justice League (who I knew as the “Super Friends”) were part of my regular television-watching experience for as far back as I can remember. In those days when the only programming for kids was on Saturday morning, I would wake up at sunrise to make sure I caught as many cartoons as possible, from “Fat Albert” to “Richie Rich” to “Meatballs & Spaghetti.” I was especially fond of the “Super Friends,” with the catchy theme song and the booming Ted Knight voice-over. Also, let me repeat, it was competing with “Meatballs & Spaghetti.”
By comparison, the “Super Friends” was like Ibsen, as directed by Michael Bay.
And “Justice League” #200 was like Shakespeare, as directed by mid-to-late 1970s George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
What makes “Justice League” #200 so great, and such a great introduction to DC comics for a then ten-year-old reader, is that it not only provides a retelling of the origin of the team, and then provides a quintessential example of the Justice League in action with the team splitting up to complete different parts of the same mission around the globe, but it embodies the past, present, and future of the DC line in a single issue. Or, it embodies the past, present, and future of the 1982 DC line, anyway.
With chapters of the 72-page issue illustrated by the likes of Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Kubert, we get to see the Silver Age legacy lapping into the present. With Jim Aparo and George Perez, we see in current state of the DCU, circa 1982. And with Brian Bolland drawing a Green Arrow/Black Canary, we see the simmering of a new kind of comic book storytelling that would blast to the surface a few years later when the British Invasion in comics came full force.
For that ten-year-old kid that I was, “Justice League” #200 was just an amazingly cool comic book with some chapters that looked better than others. In retrospect, it was the comic that clued me in to the stylistic differences between artists, and sparked an interest in comic book history — the Kubert Hawkman chapter was particularly striking, and seemed, even at the time, like some kind of throwback to an earlier era of comics.
To this day, Kane, Infantino, and Kubert, Aparo and Perez, and Brian Bolland all remain near the top of my all-time favorite comic book artists list. That one issue of “Justice League of America” imprinted them on my brain forever. Dug a groove, permanently.
I didn’t buy all the issues of “Justice League” that followed, but I soon found that none of them could top the style or ambition of that oversized issue #200. And, like my dalliance with the X-Men, I drifted away from the Justice League.
It wasn’t even comics themselves that pulled me back into comics for good. It was the one-two punch of TSR and Mayfair Games in 1984-1985, right before the world of mainstream comics changed forever. And that’s a story for another time.
A postscript: my comics-loving childhood friend Trevor and I never talked much after we moved on from elementary school. I hadn’t seen him at all, even to give a passing nod, in the past twenty years. But this summer, as my wife and I were picking out furniture for our newly-renovated library (aka, the room where all my hardcover comic book collections are shelved), we were helped by a guy named Trevor, a carpenter for the furniture company who was helping out on the sales floor that day. I didn’t recognize him until we started talking, and he certainly had no idea who I was, but as soon as I realized it was him, I introduced myself and the conflict of fifth grade study hall and “Uncanny X-Men” #149 came flashing back.
“This is Trevor, from Lanesborough Elementary!” I said to my wife, enthusiastically. “That comic book stuff that takes up all my time? It’s all his fault.”
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.