Grumpy Old Fan | Rest beside the weary road

The Futures Index is taking a break for the holidays. In fact, this post looks to be about 1,300 words on the value of taking a break. You might not think the topic should take that much space, but breaks can be tricky things.

For starters, downtime isn’t always an easy commitment, not least because it means giving up control. If you’re not checking messages until Jan. 2, you’re admitting that the world can get along without you. Accordingly, comics publishers that have new material for Dec. 24 and 31 are telling their customers not to worry -- the comics will be there for them. (There are a lot of “important” comics out this week too, like the Robin Rises special and a few installments of the Lantern books’ “Godhead.”)

Still, no matter what -- or if -- you’re celebrating, the last week of December all but forces you to slow down, because so many others are. Sometimes this slowdown doesn’t occur until the very last hours of the 24th or 31st, when you’ve done all you can do and the ticking clock can no longer be outrun.

DC Comics faces a similar deadline on April 1, when its regular roster of series goes on hiatus for two months. We know already the Convergence comics will feature stories set in previous versions of DC continuity, but so far we can make only educated guesses (at best) about what will be next.

I’m all for taking an occasional break. Because I read a lot of comics (mostly DC comics) every week, keeping up with everything can be difficult. Of course, I am mostly to blame for that habit. When I remember the good ol’ days of only one or two titles a week, I tend to forget how curious I was about picking up some more.

In this respect, the DC relaunches of 1986-87 (the Superman books, Wonder Woman, Justice League, The Flash, etc.) proved to be excellent jumping-on points, because I haven’t really jumped off any of them. In fact, I don’t know what that would take, especially under current circumstances. Even in duds like the Finches’ Wonder Woman and the Earth 2 books, it’s worth it to me to see how the various storylines wrap up over the next few months.

If that sounds like “run it ‘til it drops” mode, to a certain extent it is. Inertia is one of the more powerful forces in the direct market. However, lately that doesn’t seem to apply to new titles, particularly if I can’t get into them. For example, I hadn’t been missing Batman/Superman or Superman/Wonder Woman until crossovers made me buy them again. Everything finds its level, it seems.

2014 also marks thirty years since the end of the biggest break I took from comics, also known as “junior high school.” In the fall of 1984 I was in 10th grade -- and buying snacks for a D&D session, thereby hitting a nerd exacta -- when I saw that DC’s Star Trek series was starting an arc set immediately after The Search For Spock. Since that movie had ended on such a cliffhanger -- the crew in exile, the Enterprise destroyed -- I was desperate for new Trek, and that didn’t mean retro TV-era adventure. Not long afterwards, I was catching up on New Teen Titans and Firestorm (thanks to a set of specific Christmas requests), plus the Bat-books and Crisis On Infinite Earths. Thus, three years away, yadda yadda yadda, thirty-plus years of fidelity. Hard not to see at least a little inertia in that.

Now, I’m sure I’m not alone in taking this sort of sabbatical. There are “I was too cool for (superhero) comics” phases in a lot of readers’ pasts; and the reasons behind them are likely as diverse as the people themselves. Nevertheless, I bet that those of us who did come back did so with renewed vigor. My own return was happening right around the time of the mid-‘80s black-and-white boom (not to mention the rise of publishers like Comico, First and Eclipse), so there was a lot to explore. There’s even more in today’s comics marketplace, which has replaced poking through back-issue boxes with hard-copy reprints and/or digital availability.

That drive to learn remains constant, though; and that’s what I think a lot of us want to recapture. It goes beyond mere nostalgia to a real sense of seeing something new. My mid-‘80s renaissance coincided not just with genre-bursters like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns or stylistic overhauls like John Byrne’s Superman and George Pérez’s Wonder Woman; but also with a wave of creators seeking to test the boundaries of the form.

Emblematic of these were writer Robert Loren Fleming and artist Trevor von Eeden. Fleming had worked with Keith Giffen on some Ambush Bug stories in the Superman books, and von Eeden had drawn a handful of Batman and Green Arrow stories. Their collaboration on Thriller, a pulp-ish adventure series outside the main-line DC universe, was something entirely different. With Thriller, Fleming and von Eeden wanted to challenge readers as much as entertain them. Fleming’s scripts blended hard-nosed action with family-style ensemble drama, and von Eeden’s storytelling fairly exploded off the page. Indeed, von Eeden’s ambitious layouts were kinetic puzzles, taking readers’ eyes on wild journeys around each page. Naturally, it was all in service to the story, so DC stuck Thriller with the tagline “you can’t read it fast enough.”

In remembering those days, I keep coming back to Thriller, and to that tagline, because ironically it took me a lot longer to read. I pored over Fleming’s and von Eeden’s issues repeatedly, in hopes of drawing forth deep meanings and/or previously-unseen stylistic nuances. Besides Thriller, I was enthralled with Howard Chaykin’s work (with letterer/designer extraordinaire Ken Bruzenak) on American Flagg!; and, in a more mainstream vein, Pérez on Titans and Crisis. Here was art which demanded to be taken in slowly, not necessarily because it was dense or obtuse, but simply to admire what had gone into it. That hasn’t gone away in the past 30 years -- just look at Francis Manapul, J.H. Williams III or Frank Quitely, to name a very few -- but I think some of my attention has, and that’s troubling.

Again, let’s be clear: Most of that is on me. I have more responsibilities now than I did at age 15. I am also more free to buy, and read, as much as I want. However, the rise of online fandom, the expansion of DC’s superhero line, and even new-comics day changing from Friday to Wednesday all combine to make comics more prominent -- I am trying not to say “intrusive” -- in my weekly schedule. There are ways around each of these obstacles, but taking any or all of them could involve significant changes to decades-old practices. Not saying it won’t happen, just that it’s not likely to.

This makes an externally imposed break, whether over the winter holidays or for two months in the spring, so inviting. In the great scheme of things, neither may last very long, but at least they offer opportunities to pause and reflect -- both on being a better blogger and a better reader. After all, “opportunity” is what the beginning of a new year is all about.

Therefore, as the 2014 winter solstice fades into memory and we look forward to (literally) brighter days ahead, I’ll share a verse from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” a Christmas carol with a bittersweet flavor:

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,Whose forms are bending low,Who toil along the climbing wayWith painful steps and slow,Look now! for glad and golden hourscome swiftly on the wing.O rest beside the weary road,And hear the angels sing!

Happy holidays, all! See you in 2015.

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