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The Journey, Man 12 – Adaptability

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.

Batman-Burton

Batman directed by Tim Burton, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton

I love going to the movies. Always have. I’m not a scholar of fine cinema or revolutionary filmmaking. I know a thing or two, sure, but at the end of the day, I just like catching a flick with friends and having a good time.

Iron Man 3’s opening in just a few weeks, so it seemed only right to talk a little about that love for moviegoing. After all, my journey, man, wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about comic films – specifically superhero films, for two reasons.

Comic films in general means a pretty broad list to cover. We’re talking everything from Ghost World to Dredd here. But superhero films? That’s a more specific subset. And, more importantly, there’s an emotional connection I have with superhero films that goes deeper than other comic films.

“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
That connection started when I was a kid, naturally. Anyone from my generation will tell you that the ’80s were a golden age for genre films. If you were a fantasy fan, you had Princess Bride. If you loved sci-fi, you had Blade Runner. And if you loved superheroes, you had Tim Burton’s Batman.

Yeah, I’d seen Richard Donner’s Superman, but Batman? Hoo boy. That was a different ball game altogether. And for the next half of a decade, the Batman films were the standard by which superhero flicks were measured. Hell, I can still unapologetically dig Batman Forever. Of course, to be fair, there were all that many superhero films out there anyway. Which is why, when Batman & Robin came out, I was devastated.

It was disappointing, simply because it seemed like this marriage of two of my favourite things was coming to an end. You got to understand: This was a film so bad that George Clooney eventually apologised for it and Joel Schumacher (the man who helmed easily one of my favourite vampire flicks of all time) practically faded from the spotlight.

As far as I was concerned, that was it for superhero movies. And then Wesley Snipes came along.

blade-snipes

Blade directed by Stephen Norrington, starring Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff

“I was born ready, mother—”
I’ve pointed out before that I’ve always been a Marvel guy. So, when Blade hit the big screen, you’d think I was ecstatic. But I wasn’t. Well, not initially. At first, I just couldn’t believe that the character that Wesley Snipes so perfectly brought to the screen was the same dude with the goofy 70s shades from the comics.

But it was, and after I got over that disbelief, I was all in, baby. I mean, come on. It was a Marvel character, no matter how obscure, that was translated into a genuinely kick-ass film.

The best thing about Blade, however, wasn’t just that it was an awesome film; it was a precursor to even more superhero films. Which made me happy as can be… for a little while anyway. That marriage of my loves was back, sure, but it was a marriage that was riddled with problems.

Quantity and quality
A glut of superhero films was released in the decade or so after Blade. But for every X-Men 2, there was an Elektra. Sure, I was glad to have these larger-than-life characters back on screen, but was the excitement of seeing Spidey swing through New York worth the awkward scripts that came along with Raimi’s web-slinging trilogy?

Pretty soon, I’d kind of had it. It actually felt worse than the this-is-over sensation that came with Batman & Robin. If we’re going to use the matrimonial analogy again, it became a loveless marriage. It just wasn’t exciting anymore.

What it needed was a second honeymoon. (I’ve totally lost control of this analogy, haven’t I?)

BatmanBegins

Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale

The Dark Knight Returns
And lo and behold, just like in the ’80s, Batman heralded a new era of superhero films with the aptly named Batman Begins. But they were different this time. It seemed like the one good thing that came out of that glut was that studios were learning that they couldn’t get away with releasing substandard films for our favourite colourful characters.

Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, and eventually Joss Whedon were names that were starting to get attached to these movies. Directors that carried weight, not just with your average moviegoer, but with us nerds and geeks too. Sure, we had Green Lantern, but crappy superhero films were comparatively fewer and farther between.

The new golden age
Last year, when I sat and watched Avengers for the first time, I swear to you, I was nearly moved to tears. Hell, I still get a little misty-eyed every time I hear Alan Silverstri’s theme from the show. Can you blame me though? For the first time since Burton’s Batman, I’m looking forward to watching superhero films regularly again.

Y’know… just catching a flick with friends and having a good time

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. He blogs about his upcoming book, storytelling and other things at http://waynereewrites.com.

The Journey, Man 09 – On the shoulders…

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.

AmazingSpider-Man33

Amazing Spider-Man #33 (cover by Steve Ditko)

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.

FantasticFour49

Fantastic Four #49 (cover by 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.

Dig Comics: Hero Quest

Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.

If you know me, you know I don’t read a lot of superhero comics these days. Of course, I used to read ONLY superhero comics. Most of us who grew up on comics in the last few decades probably know what I mean. I was strictly a “Make Mine Marvel” guy for most of my childhood, only getting deep into DC post-Crisis. It was an important and magical experience, to know a full pantheon of heroes, gods, monsters, strange worlds, other realms, quests, visions…it was a unique opportunity for the 20th century. Sure, every culture ever had its religions, filled with all of its figures, places and events. But none which were created so recently, so freshly and relevantly. Modern printing allowed for tales to be disseminated as never before, not only textually but graphically, giving us perhaps as many far-out tales of battles and adventures in a few years as all the carved hieroglyphics of an entire dynasty. And there we all were, common people able to read, with easy access to experience vast mythology. I always feel pity when I think of those who passed by the so-called “universes” of the Superman or Fantastic Four variety. It’s a very special thing.

Often I consider that so many comics fans in America are really just fans of a particular mythology, or perhaps a few mythologies (think titles like Hellboy or Savage Dragon). For me, being a true comics devotee means not limiting yourself to one type of comic book experience – in fact, not limiting yourself at all, at least from overall genres and styles (naturally, within each, there will be varying degrees of quality). So why do I limit myself from superhero comics? I mean, if I take my own advice, then surely, I should be giving the current titles more of my time, right?

Spider-Man by Donald Soffritti

I can tell you why I don’t read MOST superhero comics that I used to read. The obvious: how many decent stories does any character really have? What can you possibly read that has not been written so many thousands of times over the past seven plus decades? Of course the answer is: not much. At least, not much if you stick to continuity. The absurdity of trying to pretend that figures like Batman and Spider-Man are not both well over the hill is evident in the industry practices of rehashed gimmickry and slight variations. One hero is dead (but always comes back to life). Another has some experience which “changes everything” even if it’s only a slight variation on a storyline from thirty years ago. And on top of that, somebody has to manage an ever more complex, more populated mythos which requires the preservation of all concurrent storylines, across dozens of monthly publications, for endless years, and all to meet the demands of shareholders. Gone are the days when these legacy characters were the product of visionaries, hungry not just for expression, but for money to put food on the table. The commercial product has been fully pried from the risk-taking art form that started it all. Yes, of course, there are the exceptions to the rule, but I don’t know how much I care to seek them. They are too few, too meager. I don’t put any blame on the creators working in the genre right now. First of all, it’s by far the most lucrative. And by and large, the folks behind the work are true fans. Getting the chance to write and draw that character you grew up with and getting the chance to add your stamp to the legacy must be very appealing indeed. But it’s not working for me, and I often wonder why it works for anybody. How many “reboots” before you finally get sick of reboots? How many perfectly predictable resurrections before you realize, continuity has lost all meaning?

The Batman Chronicles by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Fortunately, I have found some remedies for myself to fill these needs. First of all, I use the time machine. I’ve been jumping into all of the old stuff I never read. DC has an excellent line of affordable trade collections of the original comics from their core pantheon called DC Chronicles. Way cheaper than the hardback DC Archives collections (and printed on pulp, which I find far cooler), I have been digging in to Superman, Batman and Green Lantern, all in the order they appeared in titles like Action and Detective and DC Showcase. Sure, I’ve read a lot of this stuff, one-offs in reprints and such, but this completist line allows me to see ALL of it from the start, a real history project where you can see the more unfettered creators lay down the genesis of the legacy titles. Marvel Masterworks is another great option, but their trade paperbacks are not as competitively priced, and never on pulp (damn!). But that’s all you’ve got for right now, and all that awesome history is there too, from Fantastic Four to Iron Fist and just about everything from Marvel’s Silver Age. And I’ll sometimes nibble at “alternate reality” stories, tales of the characters outside of the continuity like Warren EllisOld Man Logan storyline or DC’s retired Elseworlds imprint. Unfortunately, entire reboots like the Ultimate universe in Marvel or The New 52 are subject to the same robust brand management interference which those other examples of limited series are put through. And as such, are plagued by the same afflictions.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause

And so I seek superheroes in other places besides DC and Marvel. Recently, I burned through Mark Waid’s Irredeemable series with great relish. Waid took the 20th century archetypes, offering instant recognizability (but with no TM infringement), and ran with a tale that brand managers at the big corporate publishers could never allow, including closure. (It helps that besides having an original story, Waid also has his own publishing house, BOOM! to be as free as he wants to be.) Marvel uber-author Ed Brubaker played his own games with his Incognito series (limited though it was, and on Marvel’s Icon imprint, to their credit). The aforementioned Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen is another excellent example of a guy giving us old-fashioned superhero fun without the expense of convoluted continuity (even though the title is getting long in the tooth itself!). I could mention more and more, but you get the idea – it’s not superheroes I have a problem with, it’s just the idea of a market dominated by this single genre (Marvel and DC run 70% of the North American market) and the idea that despite the inherent quality control issues when churning out so much pulp (or whatever slick paper is) carrying such intense corporate pressure (the far more profitable movie, video game, and toy branches of Time Warner and Disney depend on the publishing arms), the audience pushes most of its money on this heavily trod-upon ground. I wish more of you would venture out to discover humor, history, horror, high art, human dramas and so on, just like you do on TV and at the movies. But that’s just a dreamer’s lament. And I’ll be honest with you. I want to keep getting new stories from the same old characters. And I do. Just not entirely in comics.

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on Disney XD

Sadly, I nowadays get most of my Marvel/DC superhero action not through comics, but on TV. For the last twenty odd years or so, DC in particular has offered wonderful superhero mythology, starting with Batman: The Animated Series followed closely by Superman: The Animated Series which, following this continuity strictly or not, smoothly transitioned into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Here you could feel the freedom of the creators. They were given far more leeway with the legacy characters. And even after a series ended, new series could create a new vision with its own angle. You can see this in such diverse shows as The Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series. I don’t love and watch ALL of these shows, but EVERY superhero fan is bound to love one or more of them. Marvel doesn’t have quite as long of a track record with high-quality shows, but of late, we’ve seen outstanding efforts with shows like Wolverine and the X-Men, Iron Man Armored Adventures, Spectacular Spider-Man, The Super Hero Squad Show, Ultimate Spider-Man, and particularly with Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. This show, like the Justice League run and the current Young Justice offers just the right blend of childish escapism, adult themes (but not TOO adult), long episodic tales, fights and violence (but not TOO violent) mixed with healthy, respectful nods to works new and old from the source material. It is ironic that in animation – a far more expensive process than comic book publishing, requiring teams of dozens rather than perhaps 10 people (sometimes just ONE) – there seems to be a lot more room to move for talented storytellers to play with the standard bearers of the legacy books. And it’s not just freedom for them, its freedom for me, the audience, who can enjoy new tales of old friends without getting bored, still surprised from time to time, able to see these tales in fresh places where you can feel a far more steady creative control, for good or ill (again, I do NOT love all of those animated shows, but I sure do love more than a few).

Which brings me to this final bummer: I don’t like writing about TV in this column. I want to write about comics. And that means writing about something other than superheroes. But at least now you know why. And maybe somebody in the right place will take it to heart. I interviewed Stephen Christy, editor-in-chief of Archaia Entertainment, at Comic-Con a few years back for the Dig Comics project. I asked him the same thing I asked all the publishers I talked to: if you were god and could run DC and Marvel, what would you do? His answer stuck with me, and I paraphrase: “I would kill all the titles, except about 12-15 of the core books, assign top creators to those and limit the output.” He may have a point. After all, there’s a hell of a lot to pretend you can manage in one continuity without a lot of not so awesome comics. I would combine that effort with killing all continuity periodically and maybe give some creators a chance to take the characters for their own ride, rather than tack their decisions to a committee. And if you try to make your new continuity too close to your old one, you’ll lose. If you are keen on continuing to publish 50 or more titles, how about letting multiple continuities run at once? Let the market decide which one it likes. And if one falls out of favor, save the space for a new subset of creators. But do something besides the same old tricks, at least if you want to see my money again.

Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.

The Journey, Man 05 – Sweet Soul Music

Guest 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.

The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá

Comics, in my opinion, are music’s slightly odd, but still pretty cool out-of-town cousin. From The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” to My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way co-creating The Umbrella Academy, the relationship between the two mediums has, at its best, resulted in some really cool stuff.

Last month, I mentioned that Chynna Clugston’s Blue Monday introduced me to The Jam, but that music/comics connection manifested a little earlier for me.

Gabba gabba hey
The first Ramones song I ever heard was, ironically enough, one of their last. Their cover of the Spider-Man theme from the 60s cartoon was featured both on their final album ¡Adiós Amigos! and the deliciously ’90s alt-rock compilation Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. Anyone familiar with this column knows what a Spidey geek I am, so for the longest time, this rendition was the definitive Spidey song for me.

It wasn’t, in fact, till this year that nerd-rock band Kirby Krackle usurped that throne with the incredibly kick-ass and heartfelt “Web-Slinger/Hope-Bringer”.

Red Rocket 7 by Mike Allred

Fab. Gear.
But that music/comics connection continued on after the Ramones. In the late ’90s, around the same time I was discovering indie books through Oni Press, I also stumbled across Red Rocket 7 by Mike and Laura Allred, a comic about the history of rock n’ roll as seen through the eyes of the clone of an alien. (Side note: I do so love how comics can not only get away with these utterly bizarre ideas, but pull them off so damn well.)

Now, remember: I was in my late teens at this time and trapped in a world without iTunes or Wikipedia. Like anyone at that age, I was desperate for music beyond what I’d heard on the radio—so, naturally, RR7 had me hooked, if not because of the insanely cool story and art, then for the educational value of it.

The fact that Mike Allred’s band The Gear released an accompanying album to go along with the comic was just the icing on the proverbial guitar-shaped cake.

Tank Girl by Jamie Hewlett

Sunshine in a bag
Then, there was that time in 2001, when I found myself staring slack-jawed at one of the screens in the local HMV, watching a video of an animated band fighting zombie gorillas, thinking to myself, “Man, that’s cool. And… wait, isn’t that Jamie Hewlett’s art?”

The Gorillaz were probably, at the time, the best way for me to validate the coolness of comics to my friends. “Look! This guy did the Gorillaz — and he also did this!” I’d say, waving my copy of Tank Girl around.

Of course, I didn’t factor in the stink of the Tank Girl film from the early ’90s, but nevertheless, I’m still a huge fan of what Damon Albarn and Hewlett have been doing with the band.

Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Ohh, make me magnificent
But a couple of years later, I did find a new way to preach the good word of graphic literature. And it’d come in the form of a little book called Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. Not only was it, at its core, about how music was literally magic, but it also had all these really cool references that I knew my music nerd friends would get.

A particular story in the second volume of Phonogram called “Konichiwa, Bitches” (any of you out there who immediately shouted “Robyn!” get 50 cool points) stands as one of my favourite demonstrations of the storytelling power of comics — and the perfect love letter to music itself.

And the band played on…
There’s a whole lot more that I could espouse on this particular topic — Jim Mahfood working with Ziggy Marley, Watchmen’s Dave Gibbons doing cover art for Kula Shaker’s K, MF Doom’s stage name being a reference to Doctor Doom, Jamie S. Rich and Joëlle Jones’ noir comic You Have Killed Me taking its title from the Morrissey song of the same name — but Corey’s giving me the editorial stink-eye, as it is (no mean feat, considering that I’m writing this from Singapore and he’s in LA).

But, before I do sign off, I’d just like to rewind back to Chynna Clugston again. Last month, I met her while I was in San Diego and thanked her for her comics and for introducing me to The Jam. She was incredibly funny, cool, and nice — and she signed my copy of Blue Monday with the phrase “Vive Le Rock!” A fitting reference, since that issue was about the main characters trying to get to an Adam Ant concert, yeah — but also a pretty fine thought to end off this edition, I do think.

Blue Monday by Chynna Clugston

So, yeah, vive le rock, folks. And vive le comics too.

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.

Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 5: Top 10 Hottest Male Comic Book Characters

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, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

To end Gay Pride Month on a fun note, I thought I would do the ultimate comic geek exercise and count down the hottest men in comics, according to my personal gay southern-grown tastes. So, without further ado, Dane’s Top 10 Hottest Comic Book Characters. Or Dane’s Comics Boyfriend Wish List:

10. Lightning Lad (Garth Ranzz) / Karate Kid (Val Armorr)

Ok, I’m cheating here. Sue me. The Legion of Super-Heroes is what got me started in this hobby. Of all the Legionnaires, Lightning Lad and Karate Kid stories gave me the most thrill. LL’s costume is probably my favorite costume of all-time. While Karate Kid was my favorite Legionnaire, period. [pauses to think] Hmm, you could just as well add Ultra Boy, Timber Wolf and Element Lad to the list. Colossal Boy was pretty cool too. Ah hell, just say half the male Legion and be done with it. Long live the Legion! (Favorite artist: Neal Adams and Mike Grell)

9. Sunspot (Roberto “Bobby” da Costa)

The New Mutants was my favorite series and what introduced me to the Marvel Universe. I got in on the ground floor when they debuted with a graphic novel. And while southern-bred Cannonball should have been more my type, I was always attracted to Sunspot, a beautifully dark-skinned and lean South American who turns into a silhouetted strong man crackling with power when energized. His look was perfection. And his hot-headed loner attitude pinged my young gaydar. (Favorite artist: Sal Buscema and Bob McLeod)

8. Hellstorm (Daimon Hellstrom, aka The Son of Satan)

The ultimate bad boy. I mean, he’s the son of the Devil for pete’s sake! Oh, and his costume is to be shirtless. Yeah, I’m shallow. But I’ve always taken notice of his appearances. (Favorite artist: the dude’s half-naked, I’m not picky)

7. Falcon (Sam Wilson)

One-time partner to Captain America, he was one of the first action figures (Mego!) I played with. I remember finding the openness of his costume completely fascinating, and constantly peeking underneath the costume all the time. To this day, I find that Mego figure more titillating than the character in the actual comic. Yeah, I’m a weirdo. (Favorite artist: Mego)

6. Angel (Warren Worthington III)

I mean, come on… he looks like an angel, for God’s sake! Rich and classically handsome features. Did I mention he has wings and LOOKS LIKE AN ANGEL?? (Favorite artist: John Byrne and Alan Kupperberg; favorite costume: red with golden halo symbol on chest, blue variant costume a close second)

5. Iceman (Robert “Bobby” Drake)

A sentimental favorite from his Spider Friends days. A jokester who’s never quite grown up. Cool and handsome, plus how slick are those ice slides of his? Not to mention, at one point when he iced down, he was shown in his skivvies! Bobby is the fun boyfriend that I would enjoy taking home to Mom to torment. (Favorite artist: also John Byrne and Alan Kupperberg)

4. Kevin Keller (Kevin Keller)

As American as apple pie, new to comics but already a fan favorite. He’s the Mr. Popular we all crushed on in high school, or wanted to hang out with after school. Smart, athletic, handsome. Oh god, just ask me to the prom already! (Favorite artist: Dan Parent)

3. Northstar (Jean-Paul Beaubier)

Comics’ first openly gay man. A second-rate character who exploded onto the A-list when he came out of the closet. Once a hot-headed and self-absorbed mess, he’s matured over the years into the no-longer-eligible bachelor we see today. Plus, what’s up with his exotic elvish features? Yum! (Favorite artist: John Byrne)

2. Superboy (young Clark Kent / Kal-El)

An orphan with a tragic history, mysterious and full of unmatchable powers. Searching to find his role on this new planet, while discovering the extent of his abilities. I’ve always enjoyed following Superboy more than Superman, if that makes sense. Mainly because of his Legion of Super-Heroes membership. Alien or not, sign me up. I’ll take me an alien boyfriend if they come looking like him! (Favorite artists: Neal Adams and Mike Grell)

1. Captain America (Steve Rogers)


THE perfect All-American man for the guy looking for someone with old-fashioned values. Well, those values don’t come any truer than someone displaced from that actual era where the term “old-fashioned” comes from. If he wasn’t the perfect boyfriend before, once the equally perfect Chris Evans was cast in the role of Cap for Hollywood, there was no other character that could begin to compete with this hunk of gentleman. Hmm, Steve and Dane Rogers-Hill… I like the sound of it!  (Favorite artists: Mike Zeck and John Byrne)

Honorable Mention: Spider-Man (Peter Parker)

Down-on-his-luck nerd, who just so happens to be a hot adorkable genius. Sure, the whole spider thing is a little creepy. But damn, he fills out the tights nicely. And funny as hell. Gotta love a man with a great sense of humor. Still, my phobia of spiders drops him out of the Top 10, which is par for the course for his luck anyway. (Favorite artists: Todd McFarlane and Ron Frenz)

Growing Up a Gay Comics Reader Part 2: A ‘Star is Born (or, The Maturation of an Industry)

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.

Dane Hill (right)

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.

Northstar by Simon Furman, Dario Carrasco, Jr.

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.

Incredible Hulk by Peter David, Dale Keown

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.

Hector and Northstar (bottom right panel), from Incredible Hulk #418 by Peter David and Gary Frank

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.

Strangers In Paradise by Terry Moore

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.

The Journey, Man 02 – Make Mine Marvel

Guest 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.

Tattoo of Spider-Man based on artwork by Steve Ditko

It’s pretty safe to say by now that everyone, their grandmothers, and their grandmothers’ cats (all of whom, I assure you, are named Mr. Muffins) have watched and love The Avengers. Personally, I find that so cool. As a lifelong Marvel guy, it’s nice that more people are starting to see why I adore this universe of characters so much.

And, really, if we’re going to go through my journey as a comic fan, there’s no better place to start than with my love for this pantheon of colorfully garbed heroes. Well, two of these colorfully garbed heroes in particular actually, for two pretty distinct reasons.

Get by with a little help from my webs
I was introduced to Marvel — and as I mentioned before, to the comic medium itself — through one Peter Benjamin Parker, better known as The Amazing Spider-Man. Since picking up that aforementioned hardcover, I’ve followed the webhead’s adventures—sporadically at first, but with increasing regularity—for the past 24 years. (First one of you to make a crack about my age gets decked, I swear.)

A lot of people say that the appeal of Spider-Man is that, under that mask, he’s a regular guy with regular problems. I agree—but I’d take it a step further. Pete loves the Beastie Boys (respect to Adam Yauch). Dollars to doughnuts, he’s also a sci-fi, Monty Python, and Looney Tunes nerd. And, yeah, sometimes he’d rather be alone, but at the end of the day, he’s still someone you can count on.

I’m a Spidey fan, not because he faces the same crap as me, but because, when all that crap’s done, there’s no one I’d love to hang out with more than ol’ Peter Parker. I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt utterly miserable after a terrible day’s work, only to be cheered up by the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Pete’s been through a lot over those 24 years, but the one thing that’s never changed is that he’s not just a fictional character to me; as corny as this sounds, he’s a friend. (First one of you to crack wise gets decked too.)

The real men without fear
The other guy who reaffirmed me as a Marvel fan was a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock, who spends his night jumping around Hell’s Kitchen’s rooftops as the costumed crusader Daredevil.

Well, OK… that’s not entirely accurate. It was more than just the character of Daredevil, you see. Unlike Spider-Man, I wasn’t initially drawn into the charming Mr. Murdock’s world because he felt like a friend. I actually started picking up the series when writer-director Kevin Smith took over the creative reigns with artists Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti.

Now, this was pretty new to me at the time. I’d been reading comics for about ten years and I’d never thought of this as a medium driven not just by these iconic heroes, but by the people behind them as well.

Since then, almost all of the different creative teams who’ve worked on Daredevil — from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev to Mark Waid and his rotating roster of artistic cohorts — have reinforced and nurtured that subtle shift in my thinking: that the creators are just as powerful as these creations.

Face front, true believer!
A lot of snooty types tend to scoff at Marvel and mainstream superhero fare in general. They say that the genre doesn’t stack up against other, supposed literary comic works. I, however, respectfully disagree. (Actually, I’d be slightly less respectful, but Corey asked me not to be such a potty mouth. Count yourselves lucky, snooty types.)

Marvel Comics have given me characters that continue to remain very dear to my heart and have also inadvertently imparted upon me a more enlightened mentality about creators that’s led me to an even greater world beyond the capes-and-tights set.

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, and travels way too much. And, yes, that is a Steve Ditko-illustrated Spider-Man cover tattooed on his right forearm.

The Spidey Project’s LA Invasion: How an Underground Musical Sought Out Comics Fans and New Audiences

Guest columnist Cindy Marie Jenkins explores the unexpected yet increasingly frequent relationship between theater and comic books, two art forms that must be innovative in attracting audiences.

The Spidey Project at Theatre Unleashed

Most likely if you’re reading this site, you heard of the record-breaking, bone-breaking Broadway debacle turned box office success called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark last year. Going over budget was not such a big deal (often happens with such a huge project), even pushing the opening back months wouldn’t have been such a big deal. What really put the PR nail in the Spider-Man musical spectacular coffin were injuries performers sustained during rehearsals and previews.

Of course, even a year and two lawsuits later, we’re still learning everything that went into the rise of the hype, the fall of the actors (sorry, I had to) and ultimately the writer/director Julie Taymor’s exit. From most accounts, the show is a spectacular good time if you don’t mind a thin story and extravaganza for extravaganza’s sake. As pure entertainment, it seems to do a non-offensive job. I’m curious to know what Spider-Man fans think about it, if you’ve seen it or followed the story at all.

One of the more positive things to arise from all of this craziness is The Spidey Project. Creator Justin Moran released this video last February challenging himself – and anyone game enough to jump along with him – to write, score, cast, rehearse, costume, tech… you get the point… in 30 days and open his zero budget show before the $65 million dollar musical. The big payoff is that Moran didn’t just want to get the new musical open before the mega-musical, he wanted to prove you don’t need $65 million dollars to write a good story. For anyone remotely involved in the theatrical hierarchy and being told to write smaller cast plays so theaters who pay actors can actually consider producing them, Moran’s challenge hit home. Are theaters as a whole putting their money in the wrong places?

It is incredibly telling that their second video begins with a small print disclaimer making it clear, in case you were confused, that Moran in no way has the rights to do anything that he’s doing with The Spidey Project. In fact, that was Moran’s response to Gregory Crafts, Managing Director of Theatre Unleashed in Los Angeles who asked for the rights as soon as he saw the challenge video. His thought was that his theater could produce the West Coast premiere in solidarity with Moran in New York City: “We’ll see if we get sued first.”

Crafts was impressed with Moran’s results: “Well, they didn’t get sued. The show was a complete success. I finally got to see it when he posted it on YouTube. We kept in touch and late last year, we struck a deal for Theatre Unleashed to premiere it out west. It’s been our most successful show to date.”

He wasn’t just interested in the show for the marketing appeal, though; Crafts details how big a role comics have played in his life. “The first comic book I ever read was Web of Spider-Man #12. I’ve been collecting and reading them off and on for twenty-five years now. It’s kind of crazy. Books like Spider-Man, X-Men and The Avengers influenced me a lot growing up, and played a big role in defining who I am today. We’re talking they’ve shaped my life to the point where, for my day job, I do marketing for a company that makes high-end collectables based on Marvel characters (as well as Star Wars and other major geek intellectual properties). So, it’s not hyperbole when I say comic books and characters like Spider-Man are a huge part of my life.”

Lauren Turner as Betty Brant in The Spidey Project

Truth be told, one of my personal beefs with theatrical productions that have such a great cross-genre appeal is that they do very little to no realistic attempts at reaching that potential audience. They usually send a few emails inviting comic stores to their show and call it a day. So I was highly impressed at the extensive outreach that Theatre Unleashed accomplished in their short rehearsal period. Although they’ve had a few months to prepare, T.U. still delivers the same kind of guerrilla quality love for their premiere of The Spidey Project while attempting to reach a new audience with many different tactics. In no particular order:

1. Because it’s an unlicensed parody musical, they faced quite a few marketing challenges in order to stay under the “Fair Use” rules. Says Crafts: “We were really gun shy about using the #Marvel or #SpiderMan hashtags, but we still tweeted a lot about the show, about Spider-Man himself.”

2. They also integrated an extensive social media campaign Crafts called “the 50 Days of Spider-Man, where we shared the top 10 stories, top 10 villains, etc. in honor of Spidey’s 50th anniversary this year. So, for us it was about raising awareness and sharing our appreciation of the character with our patrons, theatre-goers and comic book fans alike.” A recent Facebook post featured David Letterman’s Top Ten Changes to the Spider-Man Musical also paid homage to this project’s birth.

3. “We were also very active in the real world.” says Crafts. “We did put up posters around town, especially in comic shops.”

4. Meltdown Comics hosted a one-night teaser where the audience heard some songs along with other entertainment acts.

5. Offering steep discounts through Goldstar’s Deal of the Day was probably the most important step for both ticket sales and word-of-mouth. “We sold over 300 tickets in one twelve-hour period, and word of the show spread like wildfire from there,” remembers Crafts.

6. They went a step further and opened their lobby to other sorts of art, creating a gallery of “Spidey-themed art by fans, for fans. More like a “tribute” gallery.” Crafts added, “This was pretty awesome, because we put out the call to artists everywhere and did get submissions from across the country. We also had a whole bunch of submissions come in from a grade school class. It’s kind of cool to see Spidey interpreted through the eyes of a child.For those who haven’t been to the show, we’ll be posting pictures of everything on our website soon.”

7. Something Crafts did not mention and which I know thanks to their social media campaign is that they also created guerrilla, effective process videos from Day 1. You definitely want to watch the time lapse of the set being painted, especially for the video bombs near the end. More photos of the rehearsal process are also on their Facebook page.

8. With all of the successful efforts listed above, Crafts sees their partnership with Children’s Hospital LA being the more important part of their campaign. Crafts explains that Theatre Unleashed is running a book drive for the hospital’s Literally Healing program. Crafts explains, “This is an innovative program that gifts books to children in long-term care and their families. This one hit close to home for me, as I’ve got a cousin whose life was saved by Children’s Hospital Boston, so when we came up with the idea to run a book drive in conjunction with the comic book musical, CHLA was the first place I researched. We’ve been offering patrons that bring a new children’s book to donate to CHLA the ability to name their own ticket price to see the show. A nice incentive, I think. Taking things one step further, we actually had members of the cast visit the Hospital last week in costume and in character. We hosted story time and gifted books from the hospital’s Book Moobile (a book cart that looks like a cow). It was a great experience and the kids were absolutely thrilled to get to meet Spidey in real life. The folks at CHLA were absolutely fantastic to work with and we’re looking forward to partnering with them more in the future.”

Up until the last week, T.U.’s message to their audience prevails: Come experience this show with us. The final push in an otherwise sold-out run had them running a contest to win two tickets to their closing night, typically also a party night in the theatre world. How can one lucky fan win free tickets to closing night? That is one more inventive idea that proves Gregory Crafts and Theatre Unleashed are looking for long-term relationships with their community and their audiences.

Check out Theatre Unleashed’s expansive plans for this June’s 3rd annual Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Cindy Marie Jenkins admits her childhood playmates were Gilbert & Sullivan. She works as a Storyteller and Freelance Consultant. Current writing found at the Blue Dragon Scribe Shoppe and MYTHistories. @CindyMarieJ. She is a big fan of beer. CindyMarieJenkins.com.

The Journey, Man 01 – An Introduction

Guest 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.

Wayne Rée

The fastest way to get to know someone, I firmly believe, is to start with one simple question: “What’s the first comic you ever read?” (A similar approach works for movie buffs, music fans, or voracious readers of any kind, sure—but this is a site about comic books, after all.)

It’s not so much the answer that’ll tell you everything you’d want to know about that person, but everything else that follows. Because once you open the floodgates, almost any fan will start going on and on about their own little journey through this medium that we love so much.

On the one hand, that’s what this column’s about, really. It’s incredibly egocentric—and I’ll be the first to admit that—but at its core, I’m telling you the story of me, month after month, by recalling my journey with comics’ greatest creators and creations. Because I genuinely believe that everyone’s got a story to tell. I just happen to know my story better than anyone else’s.

On the other hand though, I find that personal experiences are also one of the best ways to spread the word about the things that you love. I could tell you to listen to The Smiths, for example—or I could talk to you about how, during a particularly crappy point in my life, their music helped me out of my funk and got me back on track.

(Yeah, I know. That wasn’t exactly a comic-related example. But I’ll get to those in greater detail from the next edition of this column onwards.) (Also, I just bought a ticket to watch Morrissey in concert and I’m really psyched!) (Ahem. Anyway…)

So, that’s what you can expect from me. But before I start talking about specific characters or creators, there’re just two more things you need to know: Hi, my name’s Wayne—and my first comic ever was a European hardcover reprint of classic Spider-Man stories from the ’60s. But we’ll get to my relationship with Spidey (and one of his particularly amazing friends) next time.

Welcome to the journey, man.

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, and travels way too much.

Dig Comics: Whither Inspiration?

Guest contributor Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, begins a new series of essays looking at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.

I’ve spent most of my professional life working on the business side of things. There’s plenty of “conventional wisdom” you will find repeated. One of the biggest refrains you will hear is “stick to what works” along with the time-honored “go for the lowest hanging fruit” admonition, which in some ways seems kinda, I don’t know – dirty? When you look at the comic book market in the United States of America today, you can be sure these same sorts of creeds echo wildly within the vaunted halls of the two corporations which control 70% of the market. Marvel and DC surely have been practicing this sort of stalwart capitalism approach to their respective properties long before Time Warner or Disney entered the scene. It’s been known for a long time that using the go-to legacy characters to frontline your product armadas is the surest way to keep the lights on. But what’s funny is that were it not for risk and a trust of the artist rather than fallback to formula, neither Superman nor Spider-Man would even be with us right now.

The well-known back stories for many of the greatest superhero characters is often the same. You had a flailing company or a starving artist simply FORCED into innovation by intense need. You can see the creators of old gumshoeing their way from meeting to meeting in New York, overstuffed portfolios in hand (loose pages bursting out the sides), wondering if they’ll have to paint a barn next week just to make rent. Or you could take the legendary image of the furniture being repossessed from the publisher’s office as a handful of geniuses tap the inner depths of their creative spirit and issue forth entire mythologies to be as enduring as Aphrodite and Gilgamesh, saving the company from ruin in the same stroke. The bean-counters could never have made any of these true-life tales happen: a trust of the artist to really innovate was necessary.

Gilgamesh cries for comics

Sure, in the scenarios above, there’s this element of desperation, of necessity being the mother of inspiration. But funny enough, one of the most successful purveyors of modern mythology actually used success to fuel an ever-evolving artistry – and his most important role wasn’t as an artist. Walt Disney was far more the manager behind the scenes than an animator. And he had true vision. Rather than make every single movie after Steamboat Willie about Mickey Mouse and his little gang of friends, he always was sure to promote new properties, worked on by new artists who would take his company to the next level. That tradition has largely stayed alive to this day in the company. Of course, Mickey still makes the company a lot of money. But every couple of years, we have whole new worlds introduced to us, be it Peter Pan or Dumbo during Disney’s lifetime, or Beauty and the Beast or Toy Story in the more modern era. I doubt that Disney could have grown significantly had it stayed perched in one little pantheon of never-ending and continuous characters, relegated to one genre, targeting just one audience group. Such a business model would even contradict “conventional wisdom” – don’t ya think?

Lois Lane cries for comics

Well, by now you know my punch line – this is PRECISELY how Marvel and DC do most of their business. The scheme is simple: keep pimping the capes to the same aging comics fans and call that an industry. I guess it works in terms of market share. But it’s a losing game in the long term, as seen by the ever-declining readership much lamented these past 15 or so years. Not that they need to worry much. I mean, are Marvel and DC really comic book companies any more? One may not be blamed for pondering that perhaps now, they are more brand managers for licensing carefully crafted empires based on the iconic rosters of the beloved in their respective stables. All the continuity and/or reboots are meant to keep the base calm while experimenting with how to manage which character’s evolution to ensure the greatest market share possible. As such, we face another often-lamented paradox, Marvel and DC are what’s keeping the comics business alive, even while they sort of ensure a decline due to inbreeding. After all, Superman, Phoenix, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America and so on can really only “die” so many times before anybody even paying a little attention realizes, this industry has been reduced to running on transparent gimmickry, offering less and less as time goes on by way of a compelling story or revolutionary art. In the long run, this will turn into a huge net loss of readers, if not an overall decline of the industry itself.

Rather than seem pessimistic about the future of American comics, I would make the simple suggestion that all of you who are either long-time comic book fans losing interest in the stuff coming out, or those of you interested in comics but can’t cut through the impenetrable pitfalls of pointless universe continuity, try to find comics ELSEWHERE. There are plenty of them. There are so many great creators out there working hard, I blush in the embarrassment of riches we have at hand. There is a whole world out there of fantastic stories and art just bursting to be noticed and superheroes are just the beginning. There is horror, drama, humor, history. There is high art, surrealism, crime thrillers, and political commentary. Comics are just like the movies and literature and TV and music – there’s ALL SORTS of different types of stuff out there. There are artists who belong on museum walls next to Van Gough, Picasso and Rembrandt. There are entire publishing companies dedicated to giving singular artists the opportunity to realize unique visions, banking on the creative drive, rather than simply handing out operating manuals for 70-year old characters. Innovation is not dead, and it doesn’t need to rely upon – nor be deterred by – economic considerations.

Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire

So what’s my point? Well, I wanted to expose a problem, the decline of comics readership in America, and towards fixing that problem, I have a set of requests.

First, I would ask all my fellow long-time comics fans to leave their comfort zones and support alternative comics companies, artists, writers, and especially GENRES. It’s so odd: a film buff is likely to see all sorts of movies, yet the comics fan by and large sticks to just one paradigm – guys in tights beating each other up. When you go to the movies, you are as likely to watch The Lord of the Rings, Harold and Kumar, and Inglorious Basterds as you are to see Thor, Green Lantern, and Iron Man. So start small – check out some other fantasy books, some humor comics, maybe even a war story. Move that loyal weekly dollar from demanding the same crap over and over to a fresh surprise every Wednesday. I’ve been doing it for years, and it’s been richly rewarding. And yes, I still buy superhero comics from time to time, so I am not saying go cold turkey, just cut back and try some spinach for once, humans cannot live on Twinkies alone.

Second, I would ask anyone remotely interested in giving comic books a try, but are turned off by the likes of Wolverine and The Dark Knight to seek out alternative comics. Where to find them? Well, that’s easy if you know where to look. Starting small, I would visit the websites of comics publishers that aren’t Marvel and DC. Don’t know any? Here’s a small sampler to start with: Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Top Shelf, First Second, NBM, Archaia, BOOM!, PictureBox and Gestalt all come immediately to mind. Just looking at the list now, I see human drama, history, vampires, alternate superheroes, kids comics, true crime and even licensed material from the worlds of TV, film and literature. You could also try your local comic book store – but try and find the largest, best serviced one in your area (most “regular” shops won’t even carry a lot of this stuff, just the supes). Also, if you like what you see on the publisher’s websites, you can use Amazon’s suggestion generator to find comics you may also like.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent by Brubaker & Phillips

My last request is to Marvel and DC. For god’s sake, would you just make comic books again? Would you let more new artists create more new worlds and use your considerable resources to reach out to more new readers? Would you please end the superhero fan regime? Yes, there are exceptions to your practices. DC’s Vertigo line has offered a plethora of non-superhero works by some terrific artists. And Marvel’s Icon line has allowed some established artists to really strut their stuff unconstrained by the machinations of the superhero continuity. But great works like Jeff Lamire’s Sweet Tooth and Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’s Criminal aren’t exactly selling like hot cakes. Yet they should. Fostering works like these will manifest an image of a company to be trusted with the innovative choices it makes, just as a major studio can be a seal of quality come Oscar time. Take some chances, ladies and gentlemen of that world – act like the superheroes whose temple you worship upon. Cultivating an environment of inspiration is not just a great thing to do for the world of art, it will also turn out to be good business.

Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.

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