Over the past year, I have found myself reading more and more Marvel comics. Part of it is simply increased familiarity with the characters, I admit. I know enough to be able to separate between the movie and comic universes, but simply have not had enough access to the reading material to really familiarize myself. In that sense, me reading much more Marvel comics is a success of their cinematic universe. I don’t know that any particular marketing grabbed me, but to the extent that The Avengers could be considered advertisement for the far less lucrative comics market, it succeeded.
That being said, I did not run out immediately after watching a movie to buy a bunch of Captain America back issues. Marvel, just like their competition, do suffer from the painful issue of having such deep backstories for all of their characters, that the barrier of entry is simply too high for most. That same history is, of course, what makes it enticing, and I’m certainly not advocating reboots. I AM making strides in understanding and appreciating more of that history, but the true revelation for me was that I can, and do, enjoy certain pockets of the Marvel universe as standalone stories.
First of all, I’d like to address why I wasn’t reading Marvel comics to begin with. When I initially started reading comics, I simply wasn’t into superheroes; or at least the traditionally colorful ones. The first graphic novel I read was James O’Barr’s The Crow, which suited my teen angst well. I then transitioned into Sin City, following the 2005 release of the movie. I enjoyed comics, but I was fearful of being stereotyped. Comics, I had decided, weren’t for kids as a whole, that was just the Spider-Man stuff. I was wrong, I know, but give me a break – I was 16, the main interest in my life at the time was Metallica. Later that year, I saw the Constantine movie, and realized I simply could not get enough of this mage who so skillfully defies Lucifer himself. Or, at least, I wasn’t getting enough from the movie, so I was excited to find out it was based on an ongoing series! The first issue, drawn by John Ridgeway, seemed… old. But cool, like a chronicle of magic in the late eighties. At first, I thought Constantine was a bastard, and of course he was; but he was my bastard, and I knew he’d do the right thing in the end, great personal sacrifice be damned.
In my later reading, I got really into, and really sick of Spawn, became a die hard Gaiman fan, began worshipping Miller and then was decimated to find out about his personal views… When it came to superhero comics, however, my choice seemed to be spelled out to me and were static: 1. A lot of my favorite comics were from Vertigo, and I knew DC owned them; 2. Batman. In the competition between the big two, I sided with DC not because I read many of their comics, but because I read any of their comics: Batman, and their indie imprint Vertigo’s titles. I knew about mainstream comics, I thought, but really didn’t read them much at all.
DC’s New 52 offered me a way in to their main universe, however, and I jumped in. Reading from 1 to 5 monthly titles since the reboot. While I really like Snyder’s Batman, and Swamp Thing certainly has very cool moments, my faith in DC began wavering with, once again, my original favorite comic character – John Constantine. I found out he was in the Justice League Dark team, and naturally had to check it out. I tried, I really tried to like that version of Constantine. I’m not a negative guy, I actually thought the Keanu Reeves version was descent, aside from the obvious differences. I realized very quickly, however, that this was no longer the character I loved. I like the idea of the magical character being in a superhero world, but he can’t himself become a superhero, and unfortunately in his current comics his powers are pretty much akin to Zatanna’s – “Denialpxenu gninthgil morf sregnif!” There’s no real reason why Constantine fights the Cult of the Cold Flame in those comics, except that they’re bad guys. Once again, I appreciate the need for some background knowledge in most comics, but this is New 52, everything should be explained, right? Satisfied to continue reading the Hellblazer monthlies, therefore, I promptly dropped JLD. Imagine my dismay, when I found out Hellblazer was being cancelled and replaced with Constantine, a DC Universe book. I tried to remain optimistic, even picked up more of the JLD comics to try and get into this version of the character, but none of those comics grabbed me. For about a minute, I wasn’t sure I would continue reading any mainstream comics at all, prepared to retreat to the indies, where it’s safe…
What changed that, is me seeing the Bryan Lee O’Malley variant cover for Young Avengers #1. I was already a huge Scott Pilgrim fan, resulting in me purchasing the comic solely for the cover, which is the only time I had ever done this. I’m really glad I wasn’t lead astray, because I now strongly believe that comics like Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen represent the future of comics. The characters, while being respectful of the old guard of superheroes they are emulating, are modern, and have modern relationships amongst them. Which is why, despite me having not previously had absolutely any awareness of who the characters were, I was engaged completely from reading the first issue. I love that the comic’s lineup is not exclusively male, and that it is definitely not hetero-normative. I love that gay characters are given the space to just be a really adorable couple, without their relationship being a major stumbling point for the plot. I love that Captain America’s counterpart in the comic is a latino girl without that being overexplained or publicized and discussed by the media at large. I got the sense that these characters were people, living their lives (as super-powered as those lives may be). And the story, and the storytelling is REALLY COOL! I keep seeing things in that comic that I had NEVER seen in comics before, both in Gillan’s writing and the art by Jamie McKelvie;and while I’m not, as I’ve established, an expert, I have read a lot of comics since 2005. Reading this comic is almost akin to watching a modern music video, having only seen pre-eighties cinema before. It’s jarring, and you can question the value of the content all you want… But it’s vibrant, and I feel alive when I read that comic.
I have found similar experiences in Deadpool and Hawkeye, for completely different reasons. Deadpool is funny to the extent that superhero comic have no right being, and a friend just told me he teared up two pages into Fraction’s Hawkeye #1. Fraction’s FF is similarly wonderful. I understand if I end up being mocked at my shock, but I actually didn’t realize that could be done in Marvel superhero comics, which is why I haven’t been reading them! I’ve since gone back and have been systematically familiarizing myself with the Marvel universe at large, and while it isn’t all gold, the characters and stories are actually really interesting and complex. I can follow, understand, and empathize with these characters, which I had found increasingly difficult to do in DC.
So there it is. I did not mean to put down DC comics with this article in any way, because I certainly do still enjoy a lot of DC comics. Vertigo is putting out more Sandman, which I can’t wait for. Snyder’s Batman is, once again, great, and there is nothing DC is currently getting wrong they couldn’t fix by hiring, and keeping the right writer; the key to which is, I believe, let them do interesting, character motivated stories. And I’m sure there are many great titles I’m just not reading! So, let this be an assignment to my readers – what else should I be reading, on either of the big two, that makes me excited about comics? Because let me be honest – I just don’t have the time and money to be reading comics I don’t love.