Sunday, September 25, 2011

Early Comic Book Influences, Or What Happened to Me

Discussions about getting new readers into the hobby and what the "core" aspects of a character might be got me to thinking about the comics that influenced my preferences.  I had read my older brother's comics from time to time, but I don't think I really internalized any comics until I started getting my own comics.  Given my brother's natural tendency to read DC, most of my earliest comics stem from that same stream as well.

In 1979, at the ripe age of six years old, my mom told me I could pick out my own comics when we went to the grocery store  (score one point for grocery store placement, and a price point that encourages add on purchases, eh?).

My earliest 1979 comics looked like this:

From here I learned that the Justice League should be the first and second tier good guys from around the DC Universe.  Also, no one else on the Justice League can be counted on to think except Batman.

And from here I learned that, even though I recognized Wonder Woman as the pretty lady on TV, in comics her adventures had to do with Greek Mythology, not random thugs.

Aging to the far more mature age of seven, I can't say that I regularly collected any comics.  I'm sure I got other comics beyond the above comics, but I don't remember them to save my life.  But I do remember some stand outs from 1980:

I'm not going to lie.  I asked my mom for the Brave and the Bold comic because I wanted to read about Batman and Penguin.  I knew who those guys were, and I was excited.  What I learned upon reading the book is that Black Canary wears black lingerie  (no, really), and that Bruce is the manliest man ever, as shown by Canary's reaction to his rescue.

Also, I learned that Penguin in the comics was willing to shoot those rotten creeps that sang like canaries  (hey, it's the whole title of the book).  In other words, he was a bit more criminal and less goofy theme character in this story.  But still with a thing for bird themes.  But not as much.  It was subtle, and hard to put my finger on as a child, but I kind of got it.

The above issue of Superman jumped out at me, and actually kind of had a profound effect on how I saw more powerful super heroes like Superman.  The crux of the story is that Destiny is afraid that the more "mundane" things Superman does for normal folks, the less they can do for themselves, and some day, when Superman isn't there to save them, they won't know how to put out fires or rescue people from natural disasters or the like.

In the end, the point wasn't so much that Superman shouldn't help, but kind of like a toddler learning to walk, he has to wait and see if people are really in over their heads before he saves them, and that his main purpose is to take care of those major events like alien invasions and matters of great import.

So pretty much the opposite of JMS' "Grounded" storyline, which may be why I really dislike that story arc.

Riddler, Penguin, and Joker on the cover of a book about Batman?  I was all over this one.  Having grown up watching the Batman TV show, I don't think I actually knew Batman's origin until this issue.  I was also all warm and fuzzy when I saw the main plot from this story as an episode of the Brave and the Bold cartoon written by Paul Dini.  

Despite the cover, and in direct conflict with the Wonder Woman comic from the previous year, this book taught me that Batman looks right at home beating up on thugs and "normal" criminals as well as crime lords.  

Untold Legends of the Batman was a limited series, which was the bane of my existence as a youth, as it always seemed that grocery stores failed to carry the full run of any limited series.  Still, issue #1 was a pretty self contained story about Bruce's training as well as ending with a nice bit of poetic justice.

Of the three comics here, when I did pick up comics, I managed more issues of Brave and the Bold, if I remember correctly, than Superman, because even though I liked Superman, seeing Batman with a new hero every month was just cool.

Time keeps on ticking, and I had aged to near 8 years at this point, and expanded my comics reading to the following titles:

No kidding.  For every other comics I had read up to this point, Adventure Comics  (featuring Dial H for Hero) became my favorite comic almost immediately.  Were I born a bit later, I'm sure I would have been branded ADD or something similar, and there is no way that having two super heroes that constantly change into new costumed identities doesn't trip the excitement button.  I couldn't wait to get new issues, and I spend hours drawing new heroes for these two to turn into, and what powers those identities would have.

If my 8 year old brain had been able to conceive of a "Ryan Reynolds" at this stage of life, I would have never connected that being with Hal Jordan.  I'm just sayin'

I loved Green Lantern, but ironically, I could only reliably find him in Justice League, because the supermarket conspired to keep me from reading some of my favorites.  Thankfully they kept stocking Adventure Comics, but after seeing Hal fight the vile Eclipso, I wouldn't see an issue of GL for a while, at which point Hal was giving up his ring and John Stewart was stepping back into the role, meaning that for much of my young life, I was more used to John as GL than Hal.

However, whinny retired Hal was a bit more like Ryan Reynolds.

"Hey, this is like Justice League, but with younger people . . . wow!"

I was honestly very excited the first time I found this series, and Cyborg fascinated me.  I think it was the first time I didn't just take a costume at face value and was really drawn into character design.  This issue even had the first lurking appearance of Deathstroke in it  (back then, it seemed like Terminator was the name they were really pushing, but we all know how that turned out).

Unfortunately, this was yet another comics that the grocery stores seemed to like to keep out of my hands, but I did manage to collect it for a few consecutive issues before I started missing out on the really good stuff.

The progress of time marches me to the cusp of double digits, and for the age of nine, the following titles were brand new wonders to me  (well, reading them was . . . by now I'm sure I had seen them from time to time):

I never got to keep up with All Star Squadron, but it proved a point to me.  As a nine year old, it took me about five seconds to get that this was an alternate Earth were the super heroes all were around in World War  II.  That, and Nazis make good comic book villains, especially when they have ancient magic artifacts or alien space ships.

Remember when I said I liked Superman?  While I always liked Batman better, World's Finest was awesome, because I could read about them both!  On top of that, the supermarket kept stocking it, and from time to time Justice League members would pop up as supporting characters.  

Oh yeah, some guy named Frank Miller drew that cover.

I'm wrapping this up at (almost) 10 years old, in 1983:

Swamp Thing was really awesome to me, for a number of reasons.  It was still set in the DC Universe, but it wasn't quite a super hero book.  It had horror and weird stories in it, and the lead character was a monster with a heart of gold.  The funny thing is, for years I didn't realize I was on the Swamp Thing band wagon before Alan Moore started writing the book.

I'll wrap up this little bit of nostalgia at this point.  By the time I was ten, I had an allowance, and I was also getting allergy shots.  What, you don't know what that means for picking up comic books?  Okay, let me explain.  In the town where I got my allergy shots, there was a liquor store  (one of the big, well lit ones that was kind of like a supermarket) where we would stop and get sodas, and for some reason, the liquor store was much better at stocking the same books on a regular basis.

What have we learned here?  I have no idea.  It was just kind of fun to look back over these comics and see when I first encountered some of these characters.  I do think that these early comic reading adventures colored my tastes for years to come, and inform my expectation of what I want out of various characters.

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