Your latest webcomics and digital comics news.
Creators: Keep those press releases and other notices coming! I want to know what you’re up to so I can tell others.
# Jmanga is shutting down, according to an urgent notice posted on its website last week. Users can no longer purchase JManga Points to purchase comics. Unredeemed points can still be used until next week. After that, Amazon gift cards will be issued to refund unused points. By the end of May, all content and accounts will be deleted. There is no way for users to retain the digital comics they have purchased.
Jmanga was created from a conglomeration of multiple Japanese manga publishers. It only launched a couple of years ago and while it didn’t release any digital-first manga or comics, it was a noble attempt to bring Japanese comics to English-language readers and combat digital piracy. Brigid Alverson at MTV Geek has a good write-up with more background and info.
Excerpts from the notice summarizing the details:
“As of March 13th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time) users are no longer be able to purchase and/or acquire JManga Points through the Monthly Point Plan and Pay-as-you-go Plan on JManga.com. Due to this termination all Monthly Point Plan members’ accounts have been automatically switched to Free Memberships. As such Monthly Point Plan members will not be charged after March 13th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time).
“As of March 26th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time) users will no longer be able to purchase digital manga content on JManga.com.
“As of May 30th 2013 at 11:59pm (US Pacific Time) users will no longer be able to view digital manga content on JManga.com. At this time all purchased and free digital manga content will be erased from all JManga Member’s accounts.
“All JManga Members will be issued Amazon Gift Cards for use on Amazon.com as a substitute for the amount of unused JManga Paid Points possessed at March 13th 2013 at 11:59pm. Refund Distribution: Amazon Gift Cards will be emailed to applicable users at the email address registered with their JManga account. Amazon Gift Card Distribution Schedule: March 21st 2013 to March 25th 2013 (US Pacific Time).”
# ComiXology servers failed for about two days following the announcement of a mega-sale of 700 free Marvel comic books at the South By Southwest festival last weekend. “We expected a high degree of excitement for the Marvel initiative – and had believed ourselves prepared – but unfortunately we became overwhelmed by the immense response,” reads a blog post by CEO David Steinberger. They will be resuming the sale at a later date and have since resumed their normal service.
I wrote about it more at Robot 6, and within the context of the Jmanga story above, I think it’s even more crucial that digital comics providers give the option of true downloads, while keeping the option of cloud storage, so that their systems aren’t so taxed in the future.
# ComiXology and Marvel Comics made a number of other announcements at SXSW expanding their digital comics programs. Calvin Reid at Publisher’s Weekly has a great wrap-up.
- ComiXology officially launched ComiXology Submit, which allows independent creators to turn their comics and graphic novels into digital comics sold through ComiXology. Revenue is split 50/50 and creators can also sell their comics on other digital distributors. A previous beta testing allowed the service to also launch with a 35 new digital comics, most notably Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man. For more information, check out this interview with CEO David Steinberger from TIME.com’s Techland blog.
- Marvel Comics has expanded and re-branded their subscription-based digital comics service Marvel Unlimited (formerly Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited). Previously only web-based, there are now iPad and iPhone apps with an Andoid app to follow. The $10/month rate gives readers access to over 13,000 comics with more being added each week. I joined the Robot 6 crew in a roundtable on what we thought of Marvel Unlimited.
- Marvel Comics will be launching a weekly series of digital-first comics in their Infinite Comic format this summer. Each serial will run for 13 weeks and feature Marvel’s marquee characters like Wolverine.
- Marvel Comics will be introducing music to some of their digital comics as part of Project: Gamma. The music will be responsive to the reader’s pace, similar to how music shifts to player dynamics in video games. Rolling Stone has a write-up on the announcement.
- Symbolia, the journalism comics magazine for the iPad, is nearing its initial goal of 3,000 subscribers. An Android version is several weeks away. The third issue is coming soon and will be called The Mating Ritual, featuring articles and stories on “sex, relationships and interpersonal encounters.”
# American BOOOM! is a unique super-hero webcomic by writer Patrick Yurick and artist Alonso Nuñez that chronicles the story of Sarah Hannigen, a girl with exploding fists on a mission to avenge her DEA father. He’s believed to be murdered by Mexican cartels, so with the help of her grandfather she takes up the inherited guise of American BOOOM! and moves to San Diego, where she ends up exploring the bi-national world of that city and Tijuana to track down her father’s murderer.
“The use of story as a metaphor/reality is very important to us,” said Yurick. “Everything in this story takes place in real landmarks in San Diego, where we live, and our neighboring city of Tijuana. The characters are based on real interactions and stories. The references to cartels and teenagers are as close to fact as possible. The stuff that isn’t ‘true’ (super powers, plot, character specifics) is at the very least aimed at being palpably meaningful metaphors.”
Columnist Wayne Rée shares his discovery of comic books, from his start as a super-hero fan to his evolution into a believer of the power of the art form of comics.
Depending on your point of view, comics can either be seen as a 20th century art form—or a storytelling medium that’s been around since possibly the dawn of man.
However you slice it, the point is that comics have—to put it lightly—a very rich history. But a sense of history, I find, is something you grow into. You can’t really force it onto someone (as my teachers in school can tell you).
By the mid-00s, I’d reached that point where I couldn’t wait for my favorite creative teams to put out another book or I was starting to suffer from blockbuster superhero event fatigue. So, instead of looking forward, I started looking to what had come before.
Sure, I’d read and reread Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns like they were the bible, but everything before the 80s? Not really.
Finding Steve Ditko
Then came Jonathan Ross, a television personality in the UK and a massive comics fan. He was particularly obsessed with the works of Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and a couple of other superhero names that probably aren’t familiar to a lot of people, even some regular comic readers.
In 2007, he put together a documentary for BBC Four called In Search of Steve Ditko. The show focused on not just the man’s works, but also on his personality and beliefs. It talked about how he was a famous recluse and how he was a loyal follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy Objectivism.
It was a thoroughly fascinating story; the kind you’d find being told in indie comics. I was hooked.
I started picking up more of the Essential Spider-Man and Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man collections, not just to familiarize myself with the early adventures of my buddy Peter Parker, but to enjoy Ditko’s distinctively claustrophobic and paranoid style. I picked up his Doctor Strange stuff and even ordered those Steve Ditko Archives from Fantagraphics. And, man, did I devour them.
I still recommend In Search of Steve Ditko enthusiastically, not just to comic fans, but anyone who appreciates a good story. But if we’re talking about the history of comics and good stories, well, then there’s another name that’s bound to come up—Jack Kirby.
Hail to The King
I mentioned earlier that Ditko co-created Spider-Man. Unless you’re living under some kind of pop culture-repellent rock, you’ll know that the other man responsible for Spidey is Stan Lee.
Up till their final issue together, Lee and Ditko produced some undeniably (pardon the pun) amazing comics together. Their partnership seemed like a perfect pairing in a medium that paired up words and pictures.
Then I read Lee’s Fantastic Four run with Jack “King” Kirby—widely regarded as the man who defined the visual dynamism of superhero comics for generations to come—and something just felt… different.
Yes, tonally, the FF was about cosmic adventures, while Spider-Man was about personal problems mixed up with superheroics, but there was more to it than that. When it came to the life of a down-on-his-luck teenage superhero, Lee’s dialogue really complimented Ditko’s quirky art. But when it came to larger-than-life adventures, would any words—even those of the deliciously hyperbolic Lee—really ever truly match up to the accordingly epic visuals?
The answer, for me at least, was no. Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four plots were incredible, of that there’s no doubt. But once the story started rolling, his dialogue just couldn’t keep up with Kirby’s seemingly unlimited imagination.
As writer Ivan Brandon put it in an op-ed piece from last year, “[Kirby] had a story to tell and that story was bigger than everything around him.”
… Of giants.
And this is all just the tip of the iceberg, really. I have so much more Kirby to digest and at least a bit more Ditko. I’m also not as well versed in Will Eisner’s body of work as I’d like to be.
Or how about Moebius.
Or Robert Crumb.
Or Dick Giordano.
Or Neil Adams.
Or… well, you get my point. Hell, I could probably create a whole separate column about trying to digest as much of comic’s history as possible, but I’m already late with one column as it is.
There’ll be more editions like this though. ‘Cause like I said earlier, comics have such a rich history—so why on earth would I not try my darndest to digest as much of it as possible?
Wayne Rée’s been writing professionally for about ten years. He’s worked in everything from advertising to publishing, and was even part of the team that created Singapore’s very first tattoo magazine. He dabbles in screenwriting and photography, travels way too much, and is currently putting together his very first short story collection.
To celebrate Halloween this week, The Comics Observer presents a pair of reviews by Bree Todish, a writer and voracious reader being introduced to comic books. Come back Wednesday for the second half.
Way back in the mid-aughts, Marvel comics revived an adaptation, begun in 1974, of quite possibly the most-adapted work of all time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There have been a not-small number of appearances and reimaginings of Dracula in comics (especially in the Marvel universe), as in all forms of entertainment media, over the decades but no one ever really tried putting Stoker’s iconic novel in comic form until this point. The result is an effort certainly of devotion to the original story (though not always as faithful as purists might hope) in an artistic, albeit extremely dated, manifestation.
Seeing as the image to the right was the visual reference from comics to that point, I can see how they were simply staying on trend, especially with what Marvel had already established as their Dracula model. Still, that collar and flowy cape aren’t exactly going to instill a lot of fear, not to mention a widow’s peak Eddie Munster would be proud to sport.
I’ll be upfront here: I’m not a comics expert, by any means. I’ve dabbled a bit over the years and this past year have made a concerted effort to once again understand the appeal of the comic medium. It’s not that I have anything against it; it’s just never struck my fancy. I prefer my reading experience to be heightened by my own mental pictures, not someone else’s. However, as a storytelling medium and as an artform I do appreciate comics. They’re just, as I said, generally not my thing.
Dracula on the other hand is utterly my thing. Use whatever term you prefer: nerd, geek, fangirl, aficionado, obsessive, passionate, creepy… alright, I prefer you not use creepy. Nevertheless, these all are applicable for describing my association with Stoker’s novel. I could go on for hours about what this incredible piece of Gothic Victorian literature has done to shape my view of fiction, and how tremendously misunderstood it is by the bazillion interpretations given to it by film, television, books, culture and, yes, comics. That would take pages though, so I think ‘voracious intellectual fangirl’ about sums it up.
So how well does Marvel do at delving into Stoker’s world and crafting something unique while not mussing up the original story? Pretty well, actually. All the major characters are included, which doesn’t typically happen, and they are more or less transposed faithfully. There are some early thoughts by Dracula’s captive solicitor, Jonathan Harker, which diverge from the text. It’s a rather jarring departure from the naivety Harker expresses in the books in that this version has some distrust of Dracula pretty much from the start. Stoker’s Harker is more accepting of Dracula in the beginning because he’s, well, pretty naive. Also, Stoker’s Dracula might seem a little off, but he doesn’t exude Vincent Price-esque creepiness from the get go like Marvel’s Dracula. On Harker’s first night in the castle, Dracula seems “almost to merge with the fast-fading shadows,” and disappears with the dawn. Harker thinks his mind is playing tricks, but it soon becomes obvious that subtlety is not a word known to Marvel’s Dracula.
Overall, possibly the biggest point of suffering for those looking for a faithful graphic novel adaptation is the blatantly over the top style illustrations. Considering the concept was originated during the 70’s it makes sense to a point. However, much of the true horror and suspense associated with the book is lost when the characters are drawn as exaggerated, campy versions of themselves. I mean, we’re talking about a story where the most noble man to ever leave Texas sometimes sounds like he came out of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and a brilliant Dutch neuro-para-psychologist cannot comprehend ship-hands’ frequent use of the words ‘bloody’ and ‘blooming.’ Yet one of the most absurd moments in the comic is Dracula turning into a swirl of mist that looks like Edward Cullen exploded in a tornado. Blissfully, however, that’s about the only connection one can make between this adaptation and Twilight.
In the end, however, I’ll take some very dated artistry when the writers stick (pretty much) to not only the spirit of the novel, but the plot. While Mina and Lucy’s looks are reversed (a very common issue in adaptations), their characters are neither flitting, sultry, fantasy fodder nor ridiculously hypocritical, over-feminist depictions who despise all the men around them except Dracula and his sexy European accent. (Though I admit there is one instance where Lucy is splayed out on her bed, almost dead, and while her face is horrified the position in which she lays caused me to remark, “Oh! My terrified boobs!”) Dracula, while preening around like he belongs on Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Raised Collars making his goal of blending in with Victorian society a bit difficult, is not seeking love or redemption or acceptance. Van Helsing is appropriately cryptic in the beginning yet powerful in his faith and reason by the end. Even the death of Dracula himself is illustrated accurately, and the sacrifice of Qunicey Morris is not ignored or demeaned by changing the other characters’ motivations throughout the story.
For a graphic novel interpretation of this classic tale one could desire more contemporary illustrations that play up the Gothic and the real horrors, and play down the Hammer-style theatricality. However, from the perspective of the story and characterization (even with the title character being a brasher, bolder villain than in the original), no film has done as worthy a job of interpreting the realm Stoker created as Marvel Comics have.
Bree Todish is a Writer, Michigan ex-pat, obsessive and voracious reader, devourer of pop culture, adorer of music, highly opinionated trixie little pixie. You can see her talk a bit about the vampires in popular culture here, or follow her reviews, rants, and pep-talks on pop culture and life here.
Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: Ten More-Or-Less Current, More-Or-Less Mainstream Funnybooks That I Actually More-Or-Less Enjoy – And Why!
Columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
It may surprise some of you that I still read current comic books. Since writing and drawing allegedly humorous comic books is one aspect of my career as a cartoonist, it’s a matter of keeping up with the competition when it comes to reading funnybooks that are actually funny. But I also dig other genres, too. I’ll admit, I don’t purchase many new comics anymore, but between those I buy, borrow or browse at the local comic book emporiums, I’ve compiled this list of those I can recommend.
I’ll start with a few superhero series I dig, since that genre still seems to dominate the racks. Let’s face it, most superhero comics adhere to that old unwritten rule: “Create the illusion of change without ever changing anything for long.” Instead, the fun of the Marvel Universe – much more than DC’s dour, drab and depressing “New 52” – is in how the playing pieces are moved around in new and interesting ways.
Marvel’s Fantastic Four will always be my favorite superhero title and I’ll buy it as long as Marvel keeps publishing it. That dedication is due to my first reading it back when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Chic Stone, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers and others made sure that it really was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Since those first hundred-or-so issues of Fantastic Four, the series’ quality has been wildly up, down and all over the place, but rarely approaching the compelling “sense of wonder” and fun that the Kirby/Lee team achieved. Most of those assigned to the title over the years seem to be attempting to re-create stories from those first hundred issues… and they never seem to quite “get” it. The current version plays with many of those classic elements – the Inhumans, Doctor Doom, Atlantis, the Kree, Annihilus and the Negative Zone, etc. – but writer Jonathan Hickman and rotating artists Steve Epting, Ron Garney, Barry Kitson and others seem more interested in telling new sense of wonder stories with them, even if I’m the one who sometimes winds up wondering exactly what is going on in Hickman and company’s sparely presented storytelling. At least I feel like I’m reading new exploits of the FF, not more rehashes. (Speaking of the FF, that Hickman-written spin-off – featuring the young members of the Future Foundation, overseen by a civilized version of Dragon Man – is a tougher read, especially due to some extremely off-putting artwork by Juan Bobillo.)
That moving-around-playing-pieces has been an enjoyable part of Marvel’s Thunderbolts since its inception back in 1997 by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Writer Jeff Parker and a variety of artists have been the latest folks on the series for the last few years and their approach to crafting the ongoing adventures of multiple teams of bad guys – both rehabilitated and otherwise – all overseen by Luke Cage, has been a lot of fun. Twists, turns and double-crosses abound, with the team’s headquarters unanchored in the time stream to complicate matters. (This lost-in-time wrinkle provided an amusingly uneasy team-up with Captain America and the Invaders during WWII.) In recent months, the book has been re-titled Dark Avengers after Norman Osborn’s team of badass stand-ins for some of the heroic Avengers’ stalwarts. By comparison, Luke’s team almost seems like the good guys they pretend to be. The unexpected arrival of Dr. Doom (direct from Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch‘s “realistic” stint on Fantastic Four from a few years back) is yet another player sure to challenge the small-time supervillains’ internal politics. To my knowledge, this is the only series focusing on bad guys that’s lasted so long and it deserves to hold the record over such lame and lesser attempts such as DC’s Secret Society Of Super Villains or Marvel’s Super Villain Team-Up. But whether his book is called Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers, Jeff Parker provides a lot of evil fun.
Over the years I’ve heard or read a variety of arguments before and against the categorization of Elzie Segar’s “Popeye The Sailor” as the first modern superhero. (You’ve gotta admit that the notion of a tough-with-his-fists human male who gains phenomenal super-strength after ingesting a special substance and who is utterly unkillable 24/7/365 certainly sounds like a superhero!) Depending on my mood, I could easily support either stance, but one thing is constant: I love Popeye and he’s one of my all-time favorite characters, especially his original incarnation in Segar’s Thimble Theater syndicated comic strip. My first exposures to the sailor man was in Fleischer Studios’ animated “Popeye” cartoon shorts and Bud Sagendorf’s stories for Dell’s Popeye comic book and I love those, too, but IDW’s version is modeled on Segar’s original. Writer Roger Langridge (Snarked!) really captures the delightfully peculiar personalities and voices of Segar’s Popeye, Olive Oyl, J. Wellington Wimpy, the Sea Hag and the rest of the cast. So far, the second issue, featuring terrific art by Ken Wheaton, has been my favorite, but I’ve liked ‘em all a lot.
Then there’s Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon for Image Comics. Erik insists that his character is anything but a superhero, but the strip reads like a 1970s Marvel comic as interpreted by a talented underground cartoonist under the influence of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and some killer acid. Although Savage Dragon started out as a typical Image book (after all, Erik’s one of the publisher’s original founders and its former publisher), after a few years, Erik found his muse and ever since, the one thing you can count on from Savage Dragon is that the characters, stories and tone can turn on a dime. You never know what to expect from Savage Dragon and Erik rarely disappoints. Standouts have been (for me, at least): a long story arc in tribute to Kirby’s Kamandi; a honeymoon sequence that was originally conceived as a pitch for a Savage Dragon syndicated comic strip; a galaxy-conquering despot who looks like a cute little toy; a male Captain Marvel-esque superhero whose secret identity has been both a woman and an infant; a decidedly non-jolly green giant Osama bin Laden; an unauthorized appearance by the fabulous, furry Freak Brothers; and of course, Erik’s legendarily offensive “Don’t FUCK with God!” page. Now you see why I always pick up every issue of Savage Dragon; who knows what I might miss!
And although it’s not an actual superhero title, DC’s All-Star Western starring the latest iteration of “Jonah Hex” by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat certainly depends on Batman for its central concept. This series explores the Gotham City of the mid-19th Century by dropping the disfigured and morally raw Civil War vet into the middle of it. (I assume the inspiration was the 1970 TV series McCloud starring Dennis Weaver.) Anyway, Jonah has been summoned by Dr. Amadeus Arkham (founder of Arkham Asylum) to solve a chain of serial killings. Along the way he runs afoul of Gotham’s Mayor Cobblepot (an ancestor of the Penguin) and even plummets into the caverns beneath what will someday become the real estate that Wayne is built upon! It’s a fascinating look at a retrofitted version of Gotham City, and Gray and Palmiotti have long proven their skill in writing Jonah Hex over the last few years. Moritat, last seen on the DC’s “First Wave” version of The Spirit, does a good job, although he needs to learn how to draw more than one look for a woman’s face. There’s also been a number of solid backup stories with a general Western setting, including “El Diablo” drawn by Jordi Bernet, “The Barbary Ghost” drawn by Phil Winslade, “Bat Lash” drawn by José Luis Garcia-López (!), “Nighthawk/Cinnamon” and “Terrence Thirteen”. I know I’m not the only comic book pro who considers All-Star Western – edited by Joey Cavalieri – to be the best of DC’s “New 52” by a wide margin.
Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing his Usagi Yojimbo for over twenty years and yet there are still a few people out there who dismiss it because it features talking animals. Dark Horse has been publishing Usagi Yojimbo for a large part of that time, and as his many awards verify, Stan just keeps getting better and better. Over the years, I’ve drawn my fair share of “funny animal” comics and during that time, I’ve heard the term “anthropomorphic” comics bandied about. I’m still not certain I completely understand the difference, but I can acknowledge that Usagi Yojimbo is definitely more “anthropomorphic” than “funny animal” and that Stan has become a master of subtlety as well as action, of nuance as well as the written word. However, we won’t be seeing any new issues of Usagi Yojimbo for a while, because Stan is temporarily putting his Ronin rabbit aside to concentrate on the upcoming 47 Samurai, a limited series written by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson and starring a cast of historical humans. I’ve only seen a few pages but I think that it’s some of the most impressive work I’ve ever seen Stan draw and he rises to the challenge beautifully. I think that 47 Samurai is going to change a lot of minds regarding Usagi Yojimbo.
IDW’s ongoing Ghostbusters series has one foot in action, one foot in horror and one foot in comedy. (Three feet? Hey, what did you expect?) There have been quite a few stabs at adapting the ghost busting gang from the 1984 and 1989 films, but frankly, their quality has been all over the ectometer. But I think that this version has finally nailed it. First of all, Erik Burnham’s scripts have been terrific, with interesting new situations and crackling and clever dialog that’s extremely faithful to the specific on-screen personas of Bill Murray as “Dr. Peter Venkman”, Harold Ramis as “Dr. Egon Spengler”, Dan Aykroyd as “Dr. Raymond Stantz” and Ernie Hudson as “Winston Zeddemore”. These stories have been so well-done that I could easily see them as the basis for new Ghostbusters films, animated series or video games. (As if!) And speaking of animation, I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the series’ artist, Dan Schoening, has a background in that field, because his representations of the cast, while not actually caricatures of the property’s key actors, evoke them well enough to be instantly recognizable. Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening really “get” Ghostbusters and it shows. I think that this funnybook iteration of Ghostbusters is about as good as it can get, possibly even equal to Evan Dorkin’s legendary run on Marvel’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book… and as the guy who suggested BATECB to the Eisner judging committee, that’s really saying a lot.
Archie’s Kevin Keller by Dan Parent has gotten a ton of press due to the fact that it’s the first funnybook from “America’s most wholesome comic book publisher” to star an openly gay teenager. But outside of the gay press I’ve seen few if any reviews that point out that it’s genuinely a lot of fun. Now that such longtime Archie Comics creators as George Gladir, Stan Goldberg and Bob Bolling are rarely (if ever) given any new assignments, Dan Parent is arguably the company’s top creator in terms of writing and drawing the classic Archie characters with authority and appeal. Kevin Keller is no exception to that, especially when Dan wrings funny situations born of Veronica’s frustration that a cute, hip kid like Kevin Keller isn’t straight. But to Dan’s credit, the issue of Kevin’s gayness isn’t the only basis for his stories. But what I’ve especially dug about Kevin has been Dan’s terrific alternative covers for every issue of the ongoing series. Just as he drew for the initial Kevin mini-series, each one pays homage to the great Archie styles and themes of the past. One in particular that I love features Kevin – dressed as the old school Archie Andrews of the ‘40s and ‘50s – shrugging to the reader as if saying, “Can you believe how crazy-acting these straight teenagers are?”
Image’s Reed Gunther by Shane and Chris Houghton just finished up its initial 10-issue run but it’s not too late to pick up the two trade paperbacks that reprint the whole wonderful thing. I’m not a particular fan of westerns, so it’s kinda odd that I’ve got two of ‘em on this list, but if you think that All-Star Western sounds unusual, check out Reed Gunther. Reed is a roving cowboy who’s a magnet for trouble, much the same as James Garner’s private eye character in the classic 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files… except that Jim Rockford never had a grown grizzly bear for a best friend and steed. That’s right, thanks to Sterling, Reed is the Old West’s first (and only) bear-riding cowboy. Accompanied by the beautiful tomboy Starla, Reed become snared in an eldritch mystery of increasingly Lovecraftian nature and proportions… but instead of being terrifying, these monster-filled tales are hilarious! I can’t quite put a finger on why, but Reed Gunther somehow reminds me of European comic albums starring characters like Asterix, Tin Tin and Lucky Luke – and that can’t possibly be a bad thing, right? The maddeningly young and gifted Houghton brothers are currently turning their attentions to a new project, but they promise to return to Reed Gunther someday. Meanwhile, don’t miss the chance to savor Reed’s memorable first story arc.
Sergio Aragonés is arguable the World’s Greatest Living Cartoonist, and Bongo Comics’ Sergio Aragonés Funnies is, in my opinion, the best thing he’s done lately in a career that’s chock-full of “best things”… and I don’t write that just because El Maestro included a cameo appearance by Yours Truly on the cover of Sergio Aragonés Funnies No 1. Every issue includes a few short genre stories, a handful of puzzles and games, a pantomime gag or two and best of all, at least one (often two) autobiographical stories from Sergio’s amazing life – all written and drawn by Sergio himself! Unlike most of his other material, Sergio’s autobiographical pieces aren’t necessarily intended to be funny; many time they’re more poignant than you’d expect. His work for Mad and Groo The Wanderer has always been wonderful stuff, but these stories are special, even for him. (Let’s face it, Sergio’s one of the only cartoonists who’s ever had a life interesting enough to chronicle in funnybook form.) Sergio Aragonés Funnies has been on a temporary hiatus due to a passing problem with El Maestro’s back, but Sergio’s been on the mend for a while now – if anything, he’s doing even better than ever – and has jumped back into producing this now-bimonthly, Bill Morrison-edited series with a vengeance. So keep your eyes peeled for Sergio Aragonés Funnies No. 8, coming soon!
And finally, Keith Knight is one of the most talented and prolific cartoonists I know – I gobble up his stuff like junk food that’s actually good for me – yet he’s the only creator on this list that hasn’t done any actual comic books, but I’m gonna add it to my recommendations anyway. (Hey, it’s my list, my column and I’ll make and break the rules if I feel like it; consider it a bonus from me to you.) Fortunately for us, Keith’s The Knight Life (an autobiographical daily syndicated comic strip), The K Chronicles (his longtime autobiographical weekly comic strip) and (Th)ink (his weekly panel feature) have all been collected in a variety of reprint books published by Keith himself. Keith’s writing is hip, funny and smart, his drawing style reminds of Harvey Kurtzman’s (although he swears the Mad creator isn’t a particular influence) and his outlook on racial relations and humanity in general encompasses everything from sweetly cheerful (“Life’s Little Victories”) to hopelessly pessimistic. Visit Keith at kchronicles.com, read a healthy sampling of his stuff and order any and all of his books – Chivalry Ain’t Dead (The Knight Life), The Incredible Cuteness Of Being (The K Chronicles) and Too Small To Fail (Th)ink) are his latest – I promise you won’t regret it.
Not that any of my recommendations mean much in the greater scheme of things, but most (if not all) of these titles absolutely deserve better sales figures, so by all means, if what I’ve written here intrigues you, please, check ‘em out!
All I ask is that you leave a copy of each comic for me.
– Scott Shaw!
Next up: How and why I grew to love and embrace the once-reviled term “funnybook”!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comic, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become…The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for Ka-Boom. He’s currently writing and drawing on the first Annoying Orange graphic novel – split with Mike Kazaleh – for Papercutz.
Wednesday is New Comics Day! Each week, The Comics Observer picks brand new releases worth checking out that should be suitable for someone who has never read comic books, graphic novels or manga before.
These are out today! If you like what you see here, click the links to see previews and learn more about them. Then head to your local comic book store, or check out online retailers like Things From Another World and Amazon. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook.
(Disclaimer: These aren’t reviews. Recommendations are based on pre-release press, previews, and The Comics Observer‘s patented crystal ball. Product descriptions provided by publisher.)
“One of the best things going in auto-bio inflected comics these days.”
— Art Spiegelman, Maus
“The Voyeurs is the work of a mature writer, if not one of the most sincere voices of her literary generation. It’s a fun, honest read that spans continents, relationships and life decisions. I loved it.”
— Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library
“As she watches other people living life, and watches herself watching them, Bell’s pen becomes a kind of laser, first illuminating the surface distractions of the world, then scorching them away to reveal a deeper reality that is almost too painful and too beautiful to bear.”
— Alison Bechdel, Fun Home
“A master of the exquisite detail, Bell provides a welcome peephole into our lives.”
— Françoise Mouly, The New Yorker
The Voyeurs is a real-time memoir of a turbulent five years in the life of renowned cartoonist, diarist and filmmaker Gabrielle Bell. It collects episodes from her award-winning series, Lucky, in which she travels to Tokyo, Paris, and the South of France and all over the United States, but remains anchored by her beloved Brooklyn, where sidekick Tony provides ongoing insight, offbeat humor and enduring friendship.
Meet Adam Aaronson — the ideal teenager. Straight “A” student. Captain of the West Tech football team. Smart. Handsome. Charismatic. Every boy wants to be him. Every girl wants to be with him! But after a series of debilitating seizures, Adam makes a discovery that will shake his very reality to the core: the fact that he isn’t real at all! Join Adam as he begins to decrypt the truth about his origins and what it truly means to be human! It’s not easy being the perfect teen… even when you’re built that way!
Collects Machine Teen #1-5
The first volume of Peter Panzerfaust, the critically acclaimed reimagining of the Peter Pan story set in the backdrop of World War II France. Peter leads a band of orphans in their desperate attempt to escape the city of Calais as the Nazi army presses its advance deeper into the country. With impossible odds against them, the Lost Boys survive a series of dangerous adventures on their road to Paris, and to freedom.
“Might be the most interesting take on Peter Pan since the character’s creation.” – Brian K. Vaughan
For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.
There are some institutions that have come to represent the ideal way of life in our country. Cultural heritages that are recognized the world over as “All-American”: Baseball. Apple pie. Ford. Cowboys. Hollywood. Within the comic industry, that honor belongs to Archie Comics. For 70 years, they have been the “Middle America” of comicbookdom, never wavering from their small town style of stories, seemingly stunted since the ’50s in their business model. If you wanted an old-fashioned story deemed safe for the kids, you visited the townsfolk of Riverdale, where light-hearted humor was a mere chocolate malt away.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less about Archie and the Gang growing up. As All-American as I came across, to me, Archie was simply that bland out-dated line of kiddie books meant for the older generation of a bygone era. I had read one, maybe two, issues in my entire lifetime. Riverdale was just too saccharine for my tastes. I didn’t get the appeal. Did you have to be in your 60s to appreciate that “gee golly” humor? Relevance certainly seemed to have passed it by long long ago. No, my heart belonged to the spandexed superheroes battling through the modern world, thank you very much.
Little did I know, however, the changes that were going on behind the scenes the past couple years. In early 2010, Archie began dating black bandmate Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats. Not much odd about that you might think. Except that it was the first time an inter-racial relationship had been depicted with Archie. Forty-three years after the Supreme Court struck down miscegenation laws, the company finally felt it safe enough to test the waters with its readers. Did the editors debate putting out such a storyline for several decades, or was it a spontaneous idea cooked up in a meeting mere months before? Whatever the case may be, it would turn out to be the first indication of bigger and more daring things to come from the industry’s most conservative publisher. Still, Archie was not on my radar yet.
Truth be told, around this time, I was also burnt out on the event books being churned out by Marvel and DC Comics one after another. Most titles came across as money grabs. For the first time in a decade or two, I felt my passion for the medium begin to ebb. Even the gay characters that were popping up here and there were not holding my interest any longer. The gay side of their storylines didn’t have any teeth. As progressive as the various publishers were becoming, they all still seemed to be playing their hands a bit safe.
Around early summer of 2010, in a random blog interview, Archie artist Dan Parent would casually confirm that they too had plans to bring an openly gay character to their line. Barely newsworthy for any other company, this on the other hand was Archie Comics making the announcement for God’s sake. The news exploded overnight. How do you reconcile 1950s doowap and poodle skirts with the idea of homosexuality? It would be like your grandfather announcing plans to marry a 20-year-old. And that 20-year-old just so happened to be another man. The brain just has a hard time going there.
Parent’s announcement and the ensuing media hoopla grabbed my attention like a bonfire in the night. I held a cynical curiosity of the train wreck that was undoubtedly coming, visions of another Rawhide Kid-caliber disaster in mind. But, you know, it was cute they were trying. Good for them.
And so it came, in September 2010, Veronica #202 was released, and the world was introduced to gay Kevin Keller. I was expecting an uninspired stereotype. What I got was a slam dunk debut in every way. After reading the issue, all I could think was… how in the $%@& did Archie Comics come up with the most relatable and inspiring gay character in comics?!? My second thought was… when, if ever, would we see Kevin again?? I made a deal with the Devil that I would give up all my remaining Marvel books if Kevin’s debut would be popular enough to warrant further stories. Boy, did He deliver! (And boy, do I miss my Marvel! Or not. I totally went back on my word within a month. What! I’m only human.) Kevin’s debut set records for the company, and he quickly became their most popular new character in years.
As I said, the character was a revelation. In one single issue, I fell in love with the Archie universe. I suddenly got it – the appeal, the entire 70-year history, its newfound relevance unfolded before me like a map of Treasure Island, where X marked the spot on Kevin.
So what made Kevin’s debut so special? You might say the fact that the reveal wasn’t special made it special. He was that every day high school student who just so happened to be gay. The issue received universal praise in its nonchalant depiction of being gay. No angst or coming out drama. The fact that he was gay was a complete non-issue to the folks of Riverdale, its significance merely to be used as a ploy in Jughead’s ever on-going battle of wits with clueless yet love-struck Veronica of Kevin. No stereotypes. No controversy. Just a kid moving to a new town where everyone is welcomed, and oh by the way, just happened to be gay. The subtlety was a master stroke by Parent and for the publisher. The story immediately sold out and resulted in the company’s first ever second printing of an issue in its 70-year history. The character has since become one of the company’s most high-profile characters. It was also the final indication needed, you might say, that being gay in America was at last accepted.
And yet, Archie did not just stop with the character’s introduction. Oh no. Not resting on their laurels, in the year that followed, they went after the hot topics defining today’s debate on the subject, and gave it the ol’ Riverdale spin: Gays in the military. Gay marriage. Even combining together in a single issue of Life With Archie #16 a gay marriage between inter-racial military men. You could almost hear the publisher daring the conservative right to protest the company. The issue created a firestorm of attention, and subsequently sold out within days.
Meanwhile, after a trial mini-series, Keller proved popular enough to warrant his own regular series, which debuted this year.
With essentially no backlash, tons of media attention and critical praise, and heavy sales, it was only a matter of time before Marvel and DC stepped up their efforts in gay visibility. While they may have laid the foundation for that visibility the past number of years, Archie Comics grabbed the bull by the horns and has led the way with bold risky storylines, including a gay marriage in the midst of a national debate, a stance on DADT prior to its repeal, etc. For a company that on paper should be most concerned about what Middle America thinks of its lily white Americana image, its defiant integrity in the face of profit risk of late is perhaps the single most unexpected development in the industry the past several years. It’s a remarkable stance for any true blue American company to take, let alone one aimed towards kids.
Is it any wonder that Marvel is now proceeding with Northstar’s own marriage 9 months after Kevin’s gay marriage was announced? Is it coincidence that after seven years, Wiccan and Hulkling of Young Avengers are finally shown to kiss? Was it always planned that DC would re-introduce one of its oldest characters from the ’40s as gay, even after saying last year that no pre-existing characters would be turned gay? Even the rebooted Godzilla series from IDW Publishing introduced a new hero (enemy?) seeking revenge against the monster for destroying his gay wedding, killing his fiance. Archie’s newfound approach to storytelling has suddenly trailblazed the way for the industry.
So, what might the future hold for gays in comics? Expect to see a continual expansion of different gay characters – heroes, villains and side characters. There will be less trepidation with showing intimacy, and less hesitancy to treat them with kid gloves. Perhaps a gay sidekick to a major hero such as Batman or Captain America, or a gay disciple to a major villain such as Joker or Kingpin. Perhaps one of the plethora of gods will come out. Although Hercules’s sexual fluidity was hinted at by Marvel recently. Perhaps an all-gay super-team. Or maybe the child of a major character will be gay. I’d like to see a story exploring why homosexuality exists, such as a form of population control, or the “gay uncle” theory where families with gay members tend to be stronger and more successful.
Whatever is to come, we have definitely turned a major corner in recent years. There’s a bright gay future ahead for the industry, and I couldn’t be more proud.
Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here.
As the ’90s rolled in, so too did college in Virginia. And those years quickly came to be the darkest of my life.
To this day, when I reflect on them, an echo of those days’ pain hits me from the past. Think of times when you’ve felt forced to travel some place where you had no desire to go. Now consider having to stay in that place for four years. It was maddening! Like glass in the brain. Honestly, I have no idea how I was able to stick it out and get my degree. It took five and a half years in the end, including a much-needed semester off just to regain a sliver of sanity, but I did it.
At the time though, those first couple of years in particular, I wanted to be anywhere but there. No one suspected the secret clawing to get out of me. I hid it well. But, I was a pressure cooker without any relief valve, and a breakdown was slowly building. To make matters unbelievably worse, my roommates were about as straight as they came. Hell, two of them — two very large, very southern fellas — were actually on the university football team! It didn’t help either that I’d developed an unrequited crush on one of the others.
Meanwhile, there remained little to no gay visibility, comics or otherwise, to toss me a lifeline. I was a starved squirrel looking for nuts in a barren landscape. Not that I would have found time to read any. My escape into the world of comics was curbed by necessity. Studies became the priority. Not to mention the lack of steady income. I was on my own for the first time in my life. learning to navigate the world of personal finance and responsibility. Testing my discipline each week was a tiny comic store on the outskirts of campus. I’d make the occasional jaunt over to it just to get off campus and see some old “friends”. Maybe walk back with three or four titles that piqued my interest in my weaker moments. All the while, my secret was eating away at the inside of me more and more, week by week.
And that’s what made Northstar’s coming out so special. During my second year of college, in a hobby that I’d grown up with and was passionate about, there finally came a release that helped cool the pot that boiled over.
Here’s a sad secret though. When that pivotal issue of Alpha Flight did finally come out… I missed it! The title had been off my radar for years by then. By the time I’d heard the media uproar about the story, the comic shop had sold out. Even if it had not though, I would never have had the guts to buy it. Imagine if one of my roommates had discovered the issue hidden away in my room, my own scandalous stash of “porn” under the bed. I honestly don’t remember when I actually got around to reading the story. Months? Years later? Remember, this was before the internet and eBay made everything so ridiculously accessible. But none of that mattered at the time. The fact was that a well-known hero was gay, and that was good enough for me. In my mind, he was instantly the best character in comics.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Northstar as a character wasn’t anything special. To this day, he’s near exclusively known as “the gay super-hero”. Not known as well as someone like that bad-ass canuck with claws. Or that tragically funny guy with webs. Or that old-fashioned patriot with a shield. No hero-framed descriptor makes you think of Northstar. (The speedster with pointy ears? No. The twin brother with attitude that runs and flies super fast, and has a semi-cool starburst costume? Lame.) No, he was a third-string character on a second-rate team. In their heyday, Alpha Flight, a team born in the late ’70s, wanted to be the next X-Men, but never quite took off in popularity the way those other mutants did. Ask AF’s fans though and you will hear plenty of fond memories of the team, but the title never quite made tent-pole status for Marvel. Try to think of any impact character from them other than Northstar. Go on, I’ll wait….[pauses to watch Glee]….Ok, I’m back. Anything? No? That’s what I thought. The single most defining event from some 130 issues of the title was that one of its characters came out of the closet.
Of course, it’s natural to not immediately understand the ultimate impact of some random event that changes the way we look at the world. Usually not until you reflect back on it years later in its historical context. Northstar was certainly not like The Beatles exploding onto the cultural scene. Or Apple’s iPod changing how we buy music. But he was very much a turning point for gay visibility in comics. He’s the “Grandfather of Super-Hero Gays”, if you will. (I’m sure he’d just adore that moniker.) Not impacting the entre industry or fanbase as a whole by any means. Just a very under-represented segment of that fanbase that desperately needed an arm thrown across their shoulder to reassure them that they are ok too.
The majority of fans seemed to take the reveal in stride, which in itself was incredibly encouraging. Which made Marvel’s backpeddling all the more baffling. For that matter, popular opinion from those who had read the issue seemed to be that, while Northstar’s coming out was long overdue for a mainstream super-hero character, the story itself was poorly written and didactic. When I did finally got the chance to read it, for me, the issue read like Shakespeare. I was so overwhelmingly taken by the simple fact that a Marvel hero, one I’d grown up with, had actually said he was gay. This disconnect between the “straight” readers and me just highlighted how deprived I’d been for some kind of visibility. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. What I had in my hands was a diamond, and I eagerly awaited further revelations into Northstar’s life.
So, as each new Alpha Flight issue came and went (and I made damned sure to buy those issues!), and no more of Northstar’s sexuality was mentioned, hope ebbed with each passing month until all I felt was resentment at Marvel’s treatment of the character. It was something of a betrayal. The final insult was the Northstar mini-series that came out after the Alpha Flight series ended. Exactly what purpose did Marvel think it served when it completely disregarded his sexuality? Would you create a new-born mutant mini-series, but ignore the fact that he has powers? Cowards. Maybe Marvel felt that the character was too high profile, and tried to shove him back in the closet.
And yet, just a year or so later, from that point going forward I’ll call “After Northstar Announced Love” (um, I’ll work on that), writer Peter David came out with a gay character of his own in his book The Incredible Hulk. Coincidence? Who knows? Perhaps David was influenced by Northstar’s revelation when he made hero Hector gay. Maybe when Northstar’s hullabaloo came and went, he thought to himself, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. World didn’t end. Marvel got a lotta press. Let me just slip in another little side-character into my book who’s also interested in some mano-on-mano, and see where it leads…” And thus, Gay Hector was born. I didn’t know, that was me pure speculating on my part. David may have had the character’s sexuality planned long before Northstar jumped out of the closet and yelled yoohoo. It’s entirely possible that David was blindsided when beaten to the punch by that egomanical Canadian speed freak (hmm, maybe that’s his descriptor).
At any rate, thanks to Hector, I made sure to pick up every issue of the Hulk series, just in hopes of catching him in a panel or two. Yet, knowing there’d never be much when I opened the pages. But, you know what, when you’re starving, any little nugget looks like a feast. Hector’s role was such a small one though that I honestly don’t recall much beyond loving new artist Gary Frank’s pencils, and the Pantheon being a gaggle of demi-gods helping Hulk out or being his entourage or something. The highlight I can recall was a quick meeting between the recently out Northstar and Hector, shooting the breeze. And yes, as everyone suspects, all gays know each other and hang out together. So of course Hector would be hanging with Northstar at some point. (Excuse me while my eyes roll out of my head.) Still, it was a fun little moment that also served to highlight just how very few characters in this massive universe were actually gay at the time. Two. Out of how many hundreds or thousands of chatacters. Two. A third-stringer, and a….tenth-stringer? (Hello hello hello hello…. Anyone else else else else…. Echo echo echo echo….) Still, Hector was another tiny lifeline that gave me a taste of renewed hope every month, so I commend Marvel for that effort.
Around that same time, a new wave of mainstream and cult-fave independent titles came to market. I personally refer to this period of time as my Silver Age of Independents, what with the introduction of Bone, Cavewoman, Wandering Star, Penthouse Comix (ironic, no?), and the stunning Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore. Beautiful art and richly written characters, the two female leads Katchoo and Francine appeared to be in an obvious relationship together. The book was so well produced, that I didn’t mind overlooking the detail that Francine didn’t consider herself gay. The story spoke for itself, and became part of the fabric of this newly evolving gay era of comics.
My college years were also a time of immense transitions and shake-ups within the industry. A handful of the most popular artists of the day split from Marvel and formed their own company Image Comics. Another upstart company called Valiant Comics took fandom by storm. Between Image and Valiant, the “Big Two” were put on notice that they had better up their game if they wanted to keep their market share. Soon though, as if the pendulum had swung the other way, distributors fell and comic shops nationwide closed their doors. The entire market had come crashing down seemingly overnight. Valiant was gone within a few years, and Marvel had declared bankruptcy. The industry was in shambles, along with my life.
By that time though, the notion of comics being strictly for kids had become archaic, ever since Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns turned the industry on its head and toward a darker path in the mid-80s. The medium progressively grew up over those years. Stories became grittier, more real than fantasy, and thematic license expanded to the point that soon nothing seemed off-limits, punctuated by the mid-90s by writers like Garth Ennis with his hyper-violent signature style that made him a household name with fans on books like Hellblazer, Hitman, and his magnum opus Preacher. By comparison, the reveal of a gay character seemed positively tame.
Simultaneously during this time, the Comics Code Authority was showing its age, cracks forming in its foundation. How do you regulate an industry whose most popular products are increasingly breaking all the rules, rules that you are meant to enforce? When a market aims for adults, the rules for kids become irrelevant. Advertisers cared less and less for the Code’s seal on a book’s cover, and by the early 2000s, Marvel announced that they would no longer submit any of their titles to the CCA. By 2011, the Code became defunct, for years having been less a true review arbitrator and more a simple licenser of its trademark seal to anyone who still wanted to slap it on their cover, family-friendly Archie Comics being the final hold-out.
On the bright side, thankfully, my craving for visibility was making real progress in the 90s from another industry – Hollywood! Movies like The Birdcage (which I HATED at the time with its over-the-top effeminate caricatures of gay life, but audiences made it an unexpected blockbuster) and In & Out (which I LOVED and became a modest hit, but then gay audiences found it unappealing with it’s tamed utter lack of passion between the supposedly gay leads…I couldn’t win!). TV also stepped forward in big way with Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet both in real life and on her show as the first gay TV lead. That episode was a ratings juggernaut, once again proving that mainstream audiences were ready for gays. Then came ratings smash hit Will & Grace (aka Jack & Karen), which changed everything. If there had been any doubt left in Hollywood’s mind that “gay” wouldn’t play, then that notion went out the window with this widely popular show. Despite the collapse of the comics industry, gays unabashedly found their way into my living room and everyone else’s.
History will look back on the 90s as the turning point for gay rights on a cultural impact level. Mainstream audiences were given glimpses into that culture through different mediums, gays came out of the closet more and more, and understanding slowly grew with each new movie, person, TV show, or comic that introduced yet another example of gay life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! In terms of gay visibility in comics, the 90s mostly felt like snack after snack after snack. When would the real meat hit our tables?? Well, along came the 2000s, and gay representation would finally explode in ways undreamt of less than a decade earlier…
Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented.
When I was approached to write this weekly column for Gay Pride Month (that would be June), my initial reaction was to feel honored to be considered. Visibility on the subject is perhaps our most potent tool for understanding. Every positive example, whether it be through mass media entertainment or via humble blogs such as this, helps to humanize the issue just a little more for those who don’t quite understand it. More importantly, each hopefully provides a small amount of encouragement to the young kids who might be struggling with their identity. So, here I am, sharing my thoughts and sensibilities as a lifelong comic book fan… with a gay spin.
I grew up during the ’80s. In the South. Not the deep South of small town life that Hollywood makes to look so damned quaint. Or conversely, that the nightly news trumps up to look so god awful backwards and poor. No, mine was your typical suburban family lifestyle, albeit surrounded with a hint of cotton and a breath of marshland (Georgia), and then later came a slant toward the political (Northern Virginia outside of DC). I imagine my surroundings had been much the same as any other white middle class community found around the country, though perhaps with a greater focus of church on Sundays. I was a kid coming of age during the time of Star Wars, Atari and cassette tapes.
However, my great passion was comic books (and baseball, but let’s stay on topic). My love for the medium began with The Legion of Super-Heroes, thanks to those nifty little digest compilations published by DC Comics and found in convenience stores. A Superboy-led team consisting of Lightning Lad with his purple and white bolted uni, Cosmic Boy and Ultra Boy, Timber Wolf (the original Wolverine), and my favorite, Karate Kid, in his orange belted gi. On and on they appeared on the pages, all handsome and muscled under their skin-tight costumes. To this day, I hold a special place in my heart for those 30th century heroes. My Legion love soon graduated to an obsession for The New Mutants and Power Pack, not to mention the standard fare of Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, all published by Marvel Comics. DC Comics heroes took a bit of a back seat, though they remained part of the staple. As you can see, I gravitated toward kid and teen groups who were coming of age alongside me, granted, while they were playing super-hero. Maybe subconsciously, I longed for that kind of life-and-death companionship, where nothing could break their bonds. Still, none were gay. And sadly, it never occurred to me that any of them could actually be gay. It just wasn’t an option.
I, of course, was harboring this growing secret inside me while I escaped into my fantasy worlds. I wasn’t lonely per se, as I did have a handful of friends and family. It was just incredibly isolating. There was little to no visibility of gay people out there for me to better understand what was going on with me. I desperately wanted to see examples of gay people in the world. I just never looked toward my comics for that fulfillment. Perhaps, because I knew that Marvel and DC could never write such a character into their stories. Think of the shitstorm, for lack of a better word, it would have created at the time. Comics were still “for kids”. Vertigo and MAX lines had yet to be created “for adults”. The closest they would come are the side jokes made about Batman & Robin, and the lustful insinuations made by fanboys of Wonder Woman and her Paradise Island of all women. The “Big Two” comic book publishers were absolutely and utterly devoid of gay content. And I could find no fault in that as a young struggling teen. It was the world we lived in. Later, rumors would surface that there was actually a “no homosexuals” policy at Marvel. However, then-Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter denies such a policy ever existed. Regardless, there was the Comics Code Authority to contend with during that era, which would have shot down the stories immediately. What they failed to understand overall though was that I wasn’t some susceptible kid needing protection from so-called sexually deviant subject matter. I was a scared boy, growing progressively more lost, who simply needed the reassurances of a friend. Comics happened to be my most trusted “friend” at that age, and they let me down with their silence.
There was an alternate independent world of comics, but for me that consisted of mutant turtles, realms of magic, trollords, fish police and a peculiar barbaric aardvark. Then again, there were those elves being reprinted, ironically enough, through Marvel at the time. A small black-and-white title called Elfquest, whose main two characters Cutter and Skywise held a lifemate bond together, even sharing their secret soul names with each other that normally would only be shared with their “wives”. Yet still… not truly gay.
And then came a single revolutionary moment…
In 1992, a character well-known within the Marvel universe came out, shockingly and defiantly. Alpha Flight hero Northstar admitted he was gay, and it was a game changer. Perhaps even more important, when I went back to re-read his early adventures that I grew up with, there they were… the clues and tell-tale signs that writer/artist John Byrne had written into the character from the beginning! Right in front of my face the entire time! This wasn’t just a retro-conversion of a character. This was a character who harbored this same secret all along like myself! We were out there in the world after all. It was at that moment that I questioned: Were there others?
Peter Parker? No, he had Mary Jane. Daredevil? Maybe! Bruce Wayne? Despite all the jokes, I could suddenly see truth behind him! Alex or Jack from Power Pack, or Sam Guthrie from New Mutants? The possibilities suddenly became endless. These were no longer code-named heroes, but “real” characters living secretly underneath the pages. I read my comics with an entirely different perspective. My world shifted a step to the left, and I knew it was getting better.
Of course, Northstar’s sexuality vanished again for the better part of a decade, as if his declaration had earned him a spot on the inactive roster at Marvel. It was obvious that his sexuality still made the Powers That Be at the company jittery. I liked to imagine that there had been a small conspiracy inside Marvel, and maybe there had been, to get that issue (Alpha Flight issue #106) quickly out the door and to the printers before those nervous big-wig suits caught wind of it. Get it out to the world once and for all, for better or worse, the creative team’s own internal defiance like the character himself, the Comics Code Authority be damned. I feared someone may have lost their job by standing up with integrity. Whatever the consequences or reasons for shoving Northstar back into the closet, it was too late. Comics changed forever that day. Particularly for a certain segment of readers. A character was out. Like a genie from his bottle. And there was no going back. Gay kids got their example, and a whole new world opened for them.
Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.