A long, strange trip

Batman #426 has a cover date of December 1988 on it. That means it arrived in stores in October 1988. That means I've been hooked on comic books for TWENTY YEARS!

I've written about the early years of my obsession before, but it's always fun to reminisce. Hell, Other Greg does it all the time, and you indulge him, right? Can't you indulge me, even if I'm not as cool as he is? Pretty please? I'm going to do it anyway, you know!

So there I was in the autumn of 1988, just a regular nerd starting my senior year of high school. I attended William Tennent High School in beautiful Warminster, Pennsylvania, I was taking calculus, physics, English, American history, and I sang in the choir and acted in plays. Happily, my high school had 2000 people in three grades (10-12), so there were plenty of other nerds too, and we all hung out together in perfect harmony. Surprisingly enough, we co-existed quite peacefully with the jocks, mainly because many of the nerds were quite good at sports (me included). I had, in other words, a good life. My parents were strict but fair, my sister was off at college, and all was well.

(There I am, on the left, obviously. That's my history teacher on the right. He was a total geek, but he was awesome. Good teacher, too.)

Then I went to the mall one day with my friend Ken. Ken was my best friend at the time (he's still my friend, but as he lives a thousand miles from me and hates e-mail, it's hard to keep up with him). One weekend we went to the Willow Grove Mall, a fine shopping establishment. As we passed a Walden bookstore, Ken looked at the spinner rack full of comics. He and his brother had collected comics for some time, and I had read a few of them while sitting in his basement on hot summer days. Ken flipped through a few issues, and for some reason I was drawn to Batman #426. I have always been a fan of the Dark Knight, and I had been interested in superheroes in other media for years. When I was a kid, I loved the old Spider-Man cartoons where he swung from webs attached to, well, nothing. Seriously, where did his webs go? He was always swinging way above the buildings! I also watched reruns of the 1960s Batman show and loved it. Yes, I knew it was goofy, but I didn't care. I watched Super Friends, like everyone else my age, and I wondered why that furshluggener dog didn't just eat Marvin and Wendy already. Thank God someone took care of that! In the early 1980s I was a huge fan of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, where I first learned all about mutants and Professor Xavier (remember the episode where the Juggernaut was trying to get to Xavier and Spidey, Firestar, and Iceman had to stop him? AWESOME!). But I never got into comics. It was more because I didn't know where to get them in those days, and I never thought about just picking one off a spinner rack at a bookstore or a convenience store. It just never occurred to me.

So there we were, and Ken told me that in this issue of Batman, they were going to kill Robin. Holy crap! I don't know if that pushed me over the edge, or if it was the Mike Mignola drawing of Bats (I had no idea who Mike Mignola was, of course, but I liked the drawing) or what. But it was 75 cents, I had more cash than that, so I bought it. Oh dear. Who knew it would lead to a debilitating addiction? WHO KNEW??????

Now, I don't want you to think that Batman #426 is a good comic. It's okay, but nothing great. But something about it got to me. It wasn't the Jim Aparo art, which tells the story well but which I still don't appreciate as much as people who first saw it in the 1970s do. It wasn't the Jim Starlin script, which was okay but got rather ridiculous when the Joker became an ambassador of Iran (what, indeed, the fuck?). But something drew me back. Maybe it was the promise of Robin getting killed. I had nothing against Jason Todd, but I was 17 and, I guess, bloodthirsty. Kill the bastard!

I made my first trip to an actual comic book store not long after that. Ken took me to them, like he would, in later life, take me to a gay bar (he was always a bit more adventurous than I was, but he's also gay, so going to a gay bar is less adventurous for him, I suppose). I have mentioned the circuit of comic book shops in my area before - there was one down by the mall in Willow Grove (which is no longer there), one in Feasterville (which I'm fairly certain is gone too), one for a while on County Line Road (which disappeared as well), and one in north Philadelphia down on Roosevelt Boulevard (and it beats me if it's still there or not). When we had the time and were feeling bold, we went down to Fat Jack's Comic Crypt in Philadelphia. In those early days, I simply bought Batman. Ken lent me Uncanny X-Men and Detective, which really blew me away. This was when Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle were working on Detective and Claremont was screwing around with the X-Men in Australia. I was so impressed with Breyfogle that I started buying Detective with issue #594. Of course, that was the last Breyfogle issue for several months, but at least I could dig up the back issues!

So I bought the rest of "Death in the Family" and then kept buying Batman. Then I saw Amazing Spider-Man #312, which featured a Todd McFarlane cover of the Green Goblin fighting Hobgoblin. I knew the Green Goblin, but I had no idea who Hobgoblin was (and, as it turned out, that's not the original Hobgoblin anyway). But McFarlane's cover was awesome, so I bought it. If I wasn't hooked before, I was now! I threw myself into the hobby with all the fervor of a recent convert to Scientology. Back issues were cheap, so I snagged as many as I could of my new titles. I got most of the McFarlane Amazing Spider-Mans (including #300) for little money (this was just before they all skyrocketed in price) and some old Moench Batmans and Detectives from when he was writing both titles. I was in deep, man! And so quickly - October to December 1988 (when ASM #312 came out), and by early 1989 I was completely won over. I don't know why it was so easy. Price probably had quite a bit to do with it. I could buy Batman, Amazing Spider-Man, and Detective for $2.25. Even if the post-"Death in the Family" issues were weak (and they weren't great, but they did show Bats going a bit off the deep end after Jason's death), I didn't feel like I was getting ripped off. They were still entertaining and under a dollar. I certainly won't go into the whole pricing thing with comics today, but it's still true that back in the good old days (prior to comics breaking the 100-cent horizon), you could continue to buy comics in the hopes that things would "get better." Perhaps that's an immature attitude to have, and I know several of our commenters (I'm looking at you, Dan) have a scornful opinion of any person who buys a comic when several consecutive issues aren't up to snuff, but hey! I was new at this, and so even though the Michelinie/McFarlane Spider-Man run isn't all that good (I still like the art, because I always like how spidery the Toddster made Peter), I kept buying because I had nothing to compare it to. The idea of comic books, at this point in my life, was so impressive that my critical faculties (and, let's face it, I was 17, when anything that featured explosions was goddamned fucking amazing) were put on the back burner. But mainly, it was price. Even I felt a bit off about buying "The Assassin Nation Plot" in ASM #320-325 - seriously, what the hell was up with that crap? But the issues were cheap, so I bought them. And still have them. Yes, I am a bit ashamed of that.

The next comic I got into heavily was Uncanny X-Men. Doesn't every comic reader eventually find their way to Claremont's monstrous, kudzu-like universe? As I mentioned, I had read some of the issues before without buying them, and I continued that through 1989, from the introduction of Jubilee in issue #244 (I love Jubilee, by the way) to the hilarious Invasion! parody in issue #245 (the last time, I believe, that an issue of Uncanny X-Men didn't take itself deadly seriously; and no, I hadn't read Invasion! yet at that time, but it was still funny) to the first Jim Lee issue (#248) to issue #251, which features that brilliant cover of Wolverine nailed to a cross. I honestly don't remember which issue was the first I actually bought; it may have been #255, with the excellent assault on Muir Island, but I'm certain it was before the three-part Jim Lee-drawn "Psylocke turns into Asian ninja assassin" arc (#256-258), which was unbelievably cool at the time but probably did more damage to a great character than most major changes to a character. Poor Betsy really hasn't been right since then, has she? This arc came out in late 1989. I had graduated from high school in May 1989, so by this time I was in college at Penn State, where I started to expand my boundaries just a bit. I was still pretty much a DC and Marvel guy, mainly because I had no idea where to find out about anything else. I stuck to the characters I knew from my pre-comics days, because I figured those were "safe." For the most part, that was true. The comics starring these characters in 1989 were decent if unspectacular. In Detective, we had the three-part story "Blind Justice," written by Sam Hamm and drawn by Denys Cowan (#598-600) that is apparently no longer in continuity (what's up with that?). After that, Breyfogle returned and hit a bunch of issues out of the park (the three-part "Tulpa" story in #601-603 and the "Mudpack" arc in #604-607, which introduced me to Looker, who quickly became one of my favorite characters). In Batman, John Byrne was writing the three-part "The Many Deaths of the Batman" story in issues #433-435. "The Many Deaths of the Batman" and "Blind Justice" were big-time stories. Why did they come along at that particular time?

The answer, of course, is Batman the movie, which was released in the spring of 1989. I can't recall if I knew a Batman movie was in the works the previous fall when I started buying comics (Ken may have told me about it as part of his sales pitch), but suddenly it was semi-cool to be a comic book reader. I saw Batman at least twice in the theater (including a Thursday preview showing) and loved it. I wasn't one of those long-suffering comic book readers who suddenly felt validated, but I recognized how cool it was that people were talking about the Caped Crusader without feeling the need to reference the 1960s television show. Michael Keaton became my Batman, for a little while. Plus, by this time I was enough of a geek to complain about the modification of Batman's origin in the movie. There's nothing like geek smug superiority!

I don't recall the movie having any effect on my comics-buying, as in, "Now that this movie validates my hobby, I'm going whole hog!" I was already well on my way to becoming a full-fledged comics junkie. Around this time, I really started to get into the back issue hunt, about which I've written before. In 1989-1993, I scoured comic book stores wherever I could find them in State College or when I returned home in order to read up on my favorite characters. I ended up with every issue of Amazing Spider-Man back to issue #238 (the beginning of the Hobgoblin saga, an amazing tale that unfortunately fell apart completely at the end), the Englehart/Rogers/Austin Detective Comics and a bunch of 1980s Batman/Detective issues (unfortunately, as Moench was trying to turn those two books into a soap opera in which each issue led into the next, whether it was the same title or not, I have patches of stories that continue in a different title, and these days I can't be bothered to complete the collection - maybe some day!). I got both first appearances of Jason Todd as Robin (the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis ones). I got all twelve issues of Crisis on Infinite Earths and understood very little of it. And I got every issue of Uncanny X-Men back to the Giant-Size one that started it all, in different forms. I have #94-119 in Marvel Masterworks format, for instance. That collection was just completed earlier this year, when I finally got issues #120-121 for probably too much money. Yes, I could have bought the Essential volume that includes those issues, but I have every other issue in color, damn it, and I wanted those! I bought a ton of other stuff, too, most because of the characters and if they were by good creators, that was a bonus. At this point, I didn't know much about the creators, so I wasn't sure if they were good or not. Obviously, as I read more comics, I began to gravitate toward certain writers and (less usually, as I'm more of a writer guy) artists. But in the early years, it was luck that led me to good creators. I picked up the first issue of Moon Knight (volume 3, mind you) on a lark, really, and liked the character so much I went back and found the first volume. Sienkiewicz's art was so amazing in the later issues that I started looking for his stuff, which led me to New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin. Similarly, The Dark Knight Returns (an early trade, as I could never find the individual issues) led me to Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again and also to Elektra: Assassin. Batman: The Cult was a lousy story, but it introduced me to Bernie Wrightson. Even the fact that Jim Starlin was writing that story as well as "Death in the Family," neither of which were that great, made me aware of him and eventually led me to Dreadstar. So I was learning.

As I wrote above, in the autumn of 1989 I went off to college, three hours away from where I grew up, in Happy Valley, PA (Penn State is in the town of State College, but the campus has its own post office and is technically called Happy Valley). There were two comic book stores in town - a place in Calder Way (whose name escapes me) and Comic Swap on Fraser. I used to go to Comic Swap more often, because they had a ton of back issues. While I was in college, I started to spread my wings a bit with regard to comics (plus other stuff, of course, as my tastes in music and movies expanded as well). I began getting weirder stuff from the Big Two, although I still resisted moving beyond them too much. I did get the three Miracleman trades at some point, mainly because I borrowed the issues from Ken and loved them. But my forays outside of DC and Marvel were still brief and spotty. I was, however, getting into Sandman, Doom Patrol, Animal Man (I got the Morrison ones in back issues, as I bought it new starting with issue #51) - all the proto-Vertigo comics. I also got an old Moon Knight issue signed by Denny O'Neil when he came to town promoting the first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight. Good times!

I graduated in 1993 and a few months later moved west to Portland, Oregon, with my soon-to-be wife. Portland was not quite the comics mecca it is today, but Dark Horse was there, and Dark Horse runs Things From Another World, of which there were several stores around the area. I started out my comics buying at Rocky Road Comics on Burnside downtown near Powell's, but I didn't like the store too much and eventually abandoned it. I finally found Excalibur Comics on Hawthorne, which became my store. It's still the best comic book store I've ever patronized.

It was in Portland that my tastes began to change. I was still heavily into superheroes, but I was also reading more Vertigo stuff. I loved the Moench/Jones run on Batman, the Millar/Hester run on Swamp Thing (possibly Millar's best work), a lot of Scott Lobdell's work on Uncanny X-Men (it was hampered by all the crossovers, but occasionally there was a wonderful issue), and a bunch of other stuff. By this time, however, I had dropped Amazing Spider-Man. This was kind of a big deal in my evolution of a comics reader. I should have dropped it long before I did, but it reached a point where I just couldn't buy it anymore. Dropping a title was extremely liberating, because the next month, when you don't buy the title, your world doesn't end. I stopped buying ASM and the sky didn't fall. It took me too long to ditch some titles (the X-titles, for instance, which got really awful in the mid- to late-1990s), but the mutants were the only characters I felt a true love for. Even Batman couldn't hold me - if I didn't like Detective or Batman, I just stopped buying it (the non-serial nature of the titles had a great deal to with that, of course). I was still not as adventurous as I am now, mainly because I didn't read Previews and didn't pre-order comics, so whatever was on the shelf on any particular Wednesday (when I started buying comics, new comics day was Friday, but by the mid-'90s it was Wednesday, although I can't remember when it changed) was what I chose from. Occasionally I found a small press gem, but I was still mainly buying from DC and Marvel, even though I was reading a lot of Vertigo books.

What changed that was the people at Excalibur, which is why it was such a cool store. In order to get people to spend more money (I'm not naïve about why they did it), they would look at what comics you were buying and suggest other comics in the same vein or by the same creator(s). They noticed that I was buying the Faust mini-series that Avatar was publishing in the late 1990s. Ken had introduced me to Faust back in the early 1990s, and I had spent years buying the back issues and getting the new spin-off mini-series that Avatar put out. Faust is a scary comic that I can't really defend (even though it's freakin' awesome!), but at least the main title is beautifully drawn and has a compelling story. The spin-off minis, however, are truly vile. But what the hell - I bought them anyway! The people at Excalibur suggested that as I liked those books from Avatar and I liked The Authority and Planetary, maybe I would like the new series that Warren Ellis was writing for Avatar called Strange Kiss. I did. Ellis's Strange Kiss/Stranger Kisses/Strange Killings series for Avatar aren't great comics, but the fact that there were these wild comics out there from publishers that didn't show up in comics shoppes because they had to be ordered by the retailers blew my mind. It was stunning to me, and after 10 years of buying comics, it opened up a new world to me. I don't want you to think I hadn't bought weird things before. I bought both issues of Big Numbers, for instance, when they were published. I bought Hard Boiled and The Crow (before the movie came out, because I'm all cutting-edge and shit). I bought From Hell. (After Miracleman, I would read anything by Alan Moore. Ironically, my ignorance of how to find some comics meant I missed Moore's run on WildC.A.T.s, which I surely would have bought had I known he was writing them.) Around this time (1999) I started buying the aforementioned Ellis book and those of America's Best Comics. But those books showed up at the comic book store, and I happened to see them and think, "These might be good." But the only place I found books that might be a bit more obscure was in Wizard, and let's face it, they weren't very good at spotlighting anything that wasn't from the Big Four (Image and Dark Horse having joined the Big Two). Now, I realized I had to be more aggressive in finding comics, because there was a lot of good stuff out there that simply wasn't being distributed. Sad but true!

(This is the least offensive of any cover of the series. Considering it features a severed head, that's saying something.)

In August 2001 we moved away from Portland to Tempe, Arizona. It was not what we wanted, but I had just gotten my Master's Degree, there were not a lot of jobs in Oregon, and there were jobs in Phoenix. We could also not have afforded a house in Portland, where the housing market exploded in the early 1990s and remained high throughout the decade. I got a job in Arizona and we eventually bought a house (as well as spawning two kids), so it's been good in some ways, but we both miss Portland desperately, and although I shop at two good comic book shoppes, I still miss Excalibur. When we first got to Tempe, I quickly found Atomic Comics, which is a great store with one (well, two, I guess) big problem(s). When I first found them, they didn't do a subscription service, and when I found Greg's Comics (which is where I still shop) and they offered 20% off if you signed up for a box, I was on board! Plus, the proprieter of Greg's Comics (who is not named Greg) gives out Previews for free, as I've mentioned before, so I was able to start really broadening my comics buying. The biggest problem with Atomic is that their back issues are outrageously priced. They have a ton of them, but they're at least double the price of what you find in other comic book stores. They all come with backing boards, but that's not a reason to overcharge so much. So I don't go to Atomic all that often, because I can get my comics cheaper elsewhere. Plus, as much as I like Atomic, it's a chain, and I feel more comfortable at Greg's Comics, where I'm friendly with the people who work there and we can bullshit about comics for hours on end.

Of course, the Internet has contributed greatly to my growth as a comics reader. Blogs first came to my attention in 2003; I had rarely gone on-line prior to that. The Internet is a great place to find odd books that might not even be in Previews, and it's fun to read varying opinions about certain comics and why somebody likes something or hates something else. I started writing about comics on my blog in October 2004, and some months later, a Mr. Cronin asked me to contribute to the old site, where we weren't apparently sufficiently excited enough about comics to warrant an exclamation point. I don't know why Our Dread Lord and Master asked me to write here. Perhaps it was posts like this. But I'm glad he did, even if many people often wonder just what the hell I'm doing. Thanks, DL&M!

I've certainly done some foolish things in my comics-shopping career. I remember working at a convenience store during the summer of 1990 and dying for my lunch break to arrive so I could zip down to the shoppe and pick up the various covers of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1. I still own, I think, four copies of the issue. I also own all the covers of X-Men #1. I spent 20 dollars for New Mutants #87, not because I thought it would continue to go up in value (it didn't, and that's never been a consideration for me), but because I wanted to own every issue of New Mutants, and that one was stopping me! And no, it's not good. But I own every issue of New Mutants, damn it! But I've also done some smart things, like buying Hitman, sticking with Starman when Robinson sent Jack to space, and buying the first issue of Trident for some reason (and I wish I could find the rest of the issues, but that's probably a pipe dream). One of the interesting things about my life as a comics reader is what I've written about before and what MarkAndrew has termed my "reverse nostalgia" - I came to comics after my real formative years, so I have no love for characters from my childhood and therefore don't really care if Geoff Johns or Brad Meltzer either shits all over them or returns them to glory. It just doesn't matter to me. Similarly, I don't have the appreciation for stuff from before the mid-1970s that I ought to (although I've been working on it for some time now, and have begun to love a lot more from, say, the 1960s). I think, because of coming to comics so late in life (relatively), I have been able to move on when the books I love start to falter. It took me a while to reach that point, but when you consider that some life-long fans still haven't reached that point, I think I'm doing okay.

Reading comics is a great hobby, I think, because of the possibilities of comics. There's so much a creator can do with comics that can't be done in prose or movies, and it's refreshing to read something that attempts to expand the medium. Being a comics reader has also introduced me to some great people, both in the "real" world and on-line. My bizarre feud with Tom Beland led me to a subsequent conciliatory meeting with him, and I learned that he's a pretty cool guy. Lots of comics professionals are great people, doing something they love for not a lot of money to entertain us, the unwashed masses. I've never met a comics professional who is stand-offish and snotty, although I'm sure they exist (I haven't met them all, of course). Even when I've admitted that I don't like their work, they're perfectly willing to chat with me, which is nice. And, of course, as comics become more "mainstream," comics become better, I think. I truly believe we're living in the Golden Age of Comics, not because it's when I'm reading them, but because of the diversity of titles and the ease with which you can find them. I'm looking forward to what the future holds.

(Beland and Burgas - best buds!)

So it's been twenty years. More than half my life. I might not have good stories about digging through used bookstores to find a first Kirby issue, but I've still done okay. I like to think I'm smarter about comics than I was twenty years ago, but who knows. I know I'm not buying five different covers of the same comic! I don't see me giving up comics anytime soon, either. Ten or twenty years from now, when Cronin rules the world and I am but his sinister propaganda minister plotting a coup against him, I'll write another post about my life of comics-shopping. Won't that be fun?

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