Comics are for...

A young boy's journey into the nerd-filled realm of 90's comic books
April 27, 2009
"Comics are for kids!", "Comics are for nerds!", "Comics are for maladjusted man-children with low self-esteem and an unhealthy fixation on women with green, blue or leopard print skin". Such are the judgments facing anyone over the age of 12 who is "still" reading comic books. While all true statements, you have to admit they're still pretty rude things to say to the pale, acne-scarred face of someone whose Mom just kicked them out of the basement.

Now I'm not going to defend the reading of comics by adults in this article (especially since my main argument consists of shouting "Yeah-huh!" over and over again), instead I'm going to hearken back to the days of my youth when it was considered acceptable and even a little cute to be rooting for the guys and gals of the spandex crowd. Before puberty reared its ugly head and just because I sounded like a man, I was supposed to act like one. Okay, in truth I'm going to go a little beyond the threshold and into Hoju: Year 13, when I still sounded like the squeaky voiced teen from The Simpsons.

My introduction to the characters of the comic book world came not in print, but on the small screen. Superfriends, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, Garfield and Friends (just kidding), reruns of the 60's Batman TV show and Saturday afternoon viewings of the Spider-Man live action TV movies from 1978 filled my mind with imagination and kept me entertained. Although all colorful characters, Spider-Man won out for some reason and occupied my number one spot for most of my youth. In every picture from age 2-5 I'm either naked or wearing a Spider-Man shirt, there was really no third direction for me. So it was only a matter of time before I eventually picked up a comic book and beheld the wonders within.

I still remember that fateful day in 1989 when I was a lad of 7 years, riding in my brother-in-law's old Volkswagen Bug that didn't have seat belts, which at the time seemed like the ultimate rebellion (take that, coppers!). For some reason we stopped into 7-11 and that's where I first beheld the majesty of "The Rack".

No, not the Medieval form of torture (or the short form of Nordstrom Rack for all you bargain fashion hunters out there), rather it was a 5-foot tower of twisted metal that held a myriad of colorful comic books in place within its mighty steel pockets. Summoning all the cuteness I had to offer (at 7, I was starting to run out) I asked my brother-in-law if he would by me a comic book since I had just learned to read and it would be good for me (That's smooth, boy). Amazingly enough he said yes and even let me choose 2!

As my eyes scanned the glory of The Rack's offerings, I quickly grabbed an issue of Marvel Tales featuring Spider-Man (of course) and Nightcrawler who I had just been introduced to via the ill-fated X-Men animated pilot "Pryde of the X-Men". Inside the story was about the two heroes fighting a red-haired, freckle-faced villain named Arcade under the big top at the circus.

For my final choice I decided the more the merrier and selected the comic with the greatest number of heroes on the cover, which ended up being an issue of Excalibur also featuring Nightcrawler (that guy was everywhere!) and a group of second string heroes. The action unfolded as the team traveled to an alternate dimension featuring mixed up versions of more popular marvel characters. I was so excited to finally own a comic book that I even included the team of Nightcrawler and Spider-Man in a school project where we made our own pop-up book.

We were told to draw our favorite things, cut then out and then glue then to a fold in the paper we had cut in a specific way so that when you opened to that page the images jumped up. So for my favorite TV show I drew Spider-Man and Nightcrawler, obviously I was confusing the 2 cartoons I was familiar with and the cover image from my prized comic book, but my devotion was clear.

Then as kids do, I quickly lost interest. For the next 4 years I just admired the action figures that comic books inspired and most likely ate a lot of Top Ramen. It wasn't until my friend's dad, who looked like Noah as played by the king of oats himself Wilford Brimley in the Ewoks movie Battle For Endor, decided to re-live his childhood days of comic collecting that I really got hooked.

I remember one Saturday in particular that when we went to two different comic book stores to get specific issues signed by the artists. Now not only had I never considered the fact that there would be whole stores dedicated to my favorite characters, it hadn't even dawned on my that the images didn't just create themselves in a Big Bang of super-powered mayhem. I can't say I was terribly impressed by the artists either. The first one we met was an inker named Michael Beihr (at least that's what his signature looked like), or as Chasing Amy taught us to call them, "Tracers".

We handed him a couple issues of the recently re-vamped Ghost Rider as he laughingly muttered to himself about he was signing a cover of the comic that he only did the interior "tracing" on...LOSER. Needless to say I was no longer excited about meeting the wizards behind the stories, but our next stop proved to be more fortuitous.

In the next shop, which was just as empty as the previous one there was a cool looking guy with slicked back hair and an earring sitting at a table. It turns out his name was Joe Quesada and he was signing issues (with a cool silver-inked pen) of his new comic from DC called "The Ray" which I still have and have read many times (I never gave in to the collector mentality). He was very laid back and less geeky than the "tracer", which gave me hope that not everyone in the industry were nerds. For those not in the know, Joe is now the Editor-In-Chief at Marvel Comics and pretty much had a hand in bringing awesome films like Iron Man among others to the big screen. But back to "The Ray"...

This was the first comic I actually wanted to continue reading and that I looked forward to the next issue for. The short story is that a child named Ray was told he had an allergy to the sun so he was only allowed out at night, until the day he got hit by his first solar rays and he ignited in flames of glowing energy that allowed him to fly and shoot energy beams. Eventually Ray finds out that his Dad was an old-timey superhero named The Ray (who appeared in comics of the 40's, like in our real world) and that his "allergy" was just a lie meant to keep him from activating his powers before he was mature enough to use them. Cool story, plus Joe's art was really awesome, especially on the covers.

From that point on I was in a comic shop every other Saturday with my Dad, hunting through the back issue bins looking for comics of the 70's and early 80's I had missed out on. My favorite shop was called Comics Unlimited in Garden Grove, CA and I can still see my Dad in his suit (always in a suit) wandering around aimlessly waiting for me to make my selection. I've always wondered what he was thinking, "That kid, why the heck is he so into these comic book creeps? Must be all the MSG in that Top Ramen, it rots your brains". Yeah, something like that. But it wasn't just old school comics I was into, soon I was following quite a few different series of the 90's.

One of my favorites was called X-O Manowar, another great story about an ancient Barbarian who is abducted by aliens but manages to escape their ship after stealing a suit of alien armor that bonds with the host. But when Aric (the barbarian) returns to Earth he finds out that centuries have passed and after meeting a guy named Ken who teaches him English, he manages to set up a Fortune 500 company and rule the present day world of business while fighting off the occasional alien invasion. Sounds silly, but so does "A big boat sinks and lots of pretty people draw each other naked before drowning in chilly, arctic waters". The comic was put out by hot for a moment publisher Valiant Comics until they went bankrupt and sold their characters to the video game company Acclaim who re-wrote the stories to fit the icons into their video games.

You may have seen X-O after Acclaim got a hold of the rights in the 90's video game "Iron Man/X-O Manowar: Heavy Metal". I highly suggest reading the 20 issues or so of the original Valiant series, it was really well done before they just gave into the big guys with guns trend of the day and showed X-O spitting a lot as he blew up aliens with his laser cannons.

Of course I also read the "Death of Superman" and its follow-up series "The Reign of the Supermen" along with the rest of the world, but I was always a Marvel guy at heart and the character they got me hooked on was a new twist on my old favorite, named Spider-Man 2099.

This book was part of a series of lame by comparison comics set in 2099 that included: Doom 2099 (Present day Dr. Doom goes to the future), Punisher 2099 (totally the same, violent dude with a different name and more computers), X-Men 2099 (featuring a bunch of wannabe mutants that couldn't make the cut), Ghost Rider 2099 (he's digital, man!) and Ravage 2099 (a futuristic garbage man turned adventurer-thank you, Stan Lee). But Spider-Man 2099 wasn't just a throwaway one-shot idea, he really had very little to do with the original and his costume was killer!

The story goes that research scientist Miguel O'Hara (how's that for a name?) was sabotaged by a jealous colleague who tried to kill him by overloading an advanced machine that merged his cells with an old sample of the original Spider-Man's DNA but with very unexpected results. Spider-Man 2099 had talons on his fingers for climbing, organic web-shooters (waaay before the movie) and no Aunt May ('Nuff said). He was dark and brooding in comparison to Peter Parker's colorful and quirky, but not like Frank Miller presents Spider-Man or anything. Miguel just did his adventuring at night and the future was a much darker place where the major slang of the day was the word "Shock", as in "Shock you!" or "What the shock?". Eventually he did meet up with Peter Parker's Spider-Man where they switched places in time, but after that the 2099 stories kind of faded away.
Once I got to Junior High and the hormones kicked in, I ditched the Super-Dudes and focused on the Super-Babes in the pages of Gen 13. Hey, I never noticed that connection before, I was 13 and into Gen 13. Coincidence? Most assuredly so. I could bore you with the "story" (which at the time I swore was what interested me in the title) but it seems to me that a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go:

It's plain to see why I was so into the engaging plots of the book...right? Actually these were the first and only comics to get chucked by a lady friend who felt she would make a more than ample replacement. And you know what? She was right! It turns out REAL women are waaaay better than drawings of women, go figure. And that's the happy ending to this story, my love of comics didn't cause me to become an anti-social recluse, just an everyday, glad to know ya' kind of recluse.

Even though it's slightly more acceptable now to be a comics fan, what with all the big budget super hero movies ruling the box office year after year, I unflinchingly accept whatever labels are to be heaped upon the fans of graphic storytelling. Some even say I encourage them, since my current "ride" contains a full decked out Spider-Man interior, window decal reading "Got Spider-Man?" all topped off by a Spider-Man hood ornament. Judge me if you must, but that thing makes me smile every time I see it and frankly, that's all that matters.

Finally, much thanks to Cosgrove and his excellent comic book articles of late which inspired me to write one of my own. And while we're at it, let's send a shout out to vkimo, because even though I'm pretty sure he's got ties to the mob (what with all the thumbs he's collecting) the man has ushered in a new era of excellence on the site.
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