by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 15
(First Appeared: April, 2000; First Light E-zine, Issue #91)
I used to think it was just dopey kid stuff, but has anyone out there picked up a comic book lately?
I’ve never been adverse to the idea of collecting comics. But to me, it was a pursuit relegated to memories of when I was a little kid in the Bronx, walking down to Al’s candy store to pick up all the Archie comics I could get my hands on. Anything Archie was acceptable, including the monthly Archie Digest as well as the separate title Betty and Veronica, the purchase of which, being a “girls” comic, must have occasioned a raised eyebrow or two. But hey, I was young and clueless.
And any excuse to go to Al’s was welcome. Aside from comics, you could also get egg-creams and great candy, like those wax tubes with colored juice inside and Fun-Dip, which was nothing more than concentrated powered-sugar in a bag. The shop also boasted the neighborhood’s first video game, Asteroids. In fact, the worst thing about Al’s was Al himself. He was a cranky old bastard who never missed an opportunity to gyp you out of a penny or mutter something nasty if you spent too much time at the counter sipping that egg-cream. I imagine he’s long dead now, and he probably died as he lived—miserable and alone. Serves him right, the jerk. But where was I? Oh yeah, Archie.
I don’t remember when I stopped collecting Archie comics. It just sort of happened. As I got older, my tastes turned to more sophisticated reading material. Cracked magazine, mainly. That petered out somewhere in middle school and I’ve pretty much ignored comics up until a few months ago.
My rekindled interest had a lot to do with my discovery of SF author Alfred Bester, whose book The Stars My Destination was my “Best Read” of 1999 if you recall. It was Bester, I read in the book’s intro, who created the original Green Lantern oath. Now, I had never heard the Green Lantern oath, and I still don’t know it, but that tidbit of information got me thinking. If someone with Bester’s talent and imagination did a stint on Green Lantern, was that a testament to the caliber of all comics? Was I missing out on something big? I decided to find out. While tooling around the Internet one day, I did a search for sites devoted to Green Lantern. I figured what the hell? I like Bester, and green is my favorite color.
What I found surprised me. This stuff is not just for kids. I don’t know about you, but my conception of every superhero had been grounded in my memories of an old Saturday morning cartoon favorite Super Friends.
It featured your basic heroes from the DC Comics Universe: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, and Aquaman, along with occasional visits from Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and others I can’t remember. And don’t forget the ever-clueless Wonder Twins (“Wonder Twin powers activate! Form of a bucket of water!”) and their monkey Gleek.
When it comes right down to it, the main cadre of superheroes featured on the show weren’t all that super. If you took away all the ordinary humans wearing capes and wielding gadgets, you only had two beings with actual super powers who appeared on a regular basis. Three if you count Aquaman. But more on him later.
Those less-than-super folks have vanished. I don’t know how or when, but while none of us were looking, they were murdered and replaced by sleeker, meaner, infinitely more stylish incarnations of same do-gooders. And some of these folks ain’t so good.
The first thing that struck me about Green Lantern was the change in costume. As it turns out, there’s been a new Green Lantern for some time now, a freelance artist named Kyle Rayner who lives in New York City. And, despite having the most powerful weapon in the universe (his ring, of course), he’s got plenty of problems. Woman troubles. Job troubles. It’s not simply about changing clothes and bashing the bad guys any longer. Yes, that’s still there. But the writers have devoted equal, and often more time to the person behind the mask, showing readers that despite the superpowers, Kyle is human first and has all the attendant baggage. He had a personality that I could relate to.
That alone was enough to get me going. The next question was a bit tough: where to begin? To an outsider, the world of comics can be confusing. There are a ton of issues, years and years worth of history to learn. And, if you’re like me, when you start something new, you like to start at the beginning. Well, it’s not that simple with comics. First off, the DC Universe breaks down its heroes into three categories: Golden Age, Silver Age and current.
For example, the Golden Age Green Lantern was a guy named Alan Scott. The character was reinvented in the Silver Age with Hal Jordan behind the mask. And now Kyle Rayner has taken on the legacy. But the weird thing is, Alan Scott is still around, but is now known as the Sentinel. He still dons the original Green Lantern costume and has his power ring, but he’s no longer a Green Lantern. Hal Jordan went insane, destroyed the entire Green Lantern Corps and has been transformed into the villain Parallax. He still pops up from time to time as one of Kyle’s enemies.
On top of all this, throw in the occasional cross-over, time travel and alternate universe plots, not to mention the annuals, secret files, and special editions, and you have a massive canon with no easy point of entry for the clueless novice. I’ll pass along the advice I got going in, which has worked well so far: Start out by buying the current issues and maybe one back issue that looks interesting. Stick with it for a few months. Before you know it, you’ll be able to follow things pretty well and won’t be able to wait for the new issue to hit the stands.
What’s more, you’ll probably start buying different titles. To give an example, I was reading my third ever copy of GL, and Kyle mentioned that he had been busy doing some stuff with the JLA, otherwise known as the Justice League of America. They were the ones I used to get a kick out of on Saturdays. And they had their own title? More adventures that I was missing out on? Naturally, I had to check it out.
Again, I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, I knew all about the transformation Batman has undergone over the years, from wholesome Blue/Gray dispenser of justice into Gotham’s Dark Knight. Today’s Caped Crusader is portrayed as secretive, paranoid and serious to a fault. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know about the death of Superman. Superman is back now, but as far as I can ascertain, he is no longer the Man of Steel, but the Man of Energy. The extent of changes in the other characters was just as great. And there’s a host of new heroes you’ve probably never heard of.
The villains are there as well, new and old. I have to admit that they’re the only facet of the comics that disappoint me. They all seem to be over-the-top parodies of evil. As a result, some of the stories inevitably lapse into a cartoonish struggle of the good guys vs. the bad guys.
For the most part, though, the stories and supporting characters are well crafted, well written and intense. Sometimes storylines spread over several issues, and other times they’re complete in themselves. It’s stuff you can seriously sink your teeth into. And the artwork is outstanding.
They’ve even managed to make Aquaman cool. If, like me, your vision of Aquaman springs from Super Friends, your impression of this particular metahuman is probably somewhat lacking. First off, there were his “powers”: talking to fish, breathing underwater without gills and swimming. No super strength, no super speed, no super doggie-paddle. Then there was the look—coifed blonde hair, green-finned tights, salmon-colored shirt. To tell you the truth, Aquaman always struck me as—how can I put this in a PC way?—a little light in the loafers. Anyone with me on that?
I think his lameness came into true perspective for me just recently when I caught an episode of Super Friends on the Cartoon Network. I don’t remember the crisis, but Aquaman and the Flash had teamed up to solve it. They had to get to some remote location on the other side of the world in a hurry and agreed to meet there. Flash, of course, ran, moving so fast that he was skimming across the surface of the ocean, Jesus-style. Then they cut to Aquaman, and he’s puttering along on a jet-ski. A jet-ski! He’s a superhero, and that’s the best he can come up with? It would take him weeks to reach his destination! Unless it’s a super jet-ski, I figure he’s gonna have to stop somewhere for gas. And what’s he gonna do when he finally reaches the crisis? Sick a school of trout on the bad guys?
I think the powers-that-be over at DC were similarly struck by these incongruities, because of all the heroes in the JLA, Aquaman has undergone the most radical transformation. He looks like Poseidon now and has an attitude to match. He dresses like something out of the Road Warrior. The blonde hair is still there, but it’s long and frames a bearded, craggy face. And instead of queen of the sea, he’s now King of Atlantis. The biggest difference has to be his left hand. It’s now made of some kind of metal that he can transform into any shape he wants. He usually wears it in the shape of a wickedly barbed harpoon. Trust me, if you ran across Aquaman these days, you would not want to fuck with him.
For SF buffs, however, I think the Flash gives the most bang for your buck. Don’t get me wrong; GL is still my favorite, but Flash runs a close second (no pun intended). What’s coolest about him is that his faster-than-light capability lends itself particularly well to time travel and alternate universe stories. And besides, the current Flash, Wally West, is good friends with Kyle Rayner. So there are always cross-over stories and a general collegiality between the two that lets you get that much more out of both titles. Of course I realize that I’m the patsy of some sinister overarching marketing strategy that DC hatched long before I came on the scene, but I can’t say I mind that much. It’s all good fun.
And the best part about the hobby is that it’s cheap. Really cheap. Current issues go for $1.99. Back issues can go for a lot more, but if you’re not talking mega-collectables, you can expect to stay in the $2 to $10 range. If you can’t afford that, I recommend you find a new line of work.
Let me take a moment to address the Marvel fans out there. I have limited my interest to the DC Universe, mainly because these are the characters I remember and like the best. To be honest, I wouldn’t know one of the X-Men if I ran them over. And while Spider-Man was another childhood favorite, I haven’t bothered to reacquaint myself with him.
Regardless of which superhero universe suits your fancy, the Internet is a great tool to help get you started. Aside from the official websites maintained by the comic publishers, you’ll find dozens of fan sites for any hero you can think of. They’re usually great at providing in-depth character history and much more information that you never knew you wanted.
A word of warning, though: Once you immerse yourself, it becomes addictive. I recently spent the better part of a Sunday canvassing half of Long Island to find the best comic shops in my area. I found a pile of issues at the recent I-Con convention that proved to be the best part of the entire three-day program. And one of the highlights of my recent vacation was finding a Green Lantern magnet in a toy shop—the sun, the beach and the relaxation I took for granted, but a stupid magnet had me grinning like an idiot.
In my book, anything that can provide such simple pleasure is worth pursuing, dopey kid stuff or not.