Secret Origin part 1: They Make Me Think of You

This series of three “Secret Origin” essays were originally written as part of the monthlong feature “A Life in Comics” on my blog WrightOpinion.com. During that month I wrote essays nearly every day, breaking my then-rule of not writing much about myself or the the job I had at Dark Horse. It was an exercise in self-promotion, which has never come naturally to me, and along the way I took several trips down memory lane to tell, among other things, the story of how I got into comics and broke into comics. All three Secret Origin entries are represented on this site, and the rest of the Life in Comics series still live on the blog.

I came to comic books slightly later than many do, and I came to them backwards, by way of a younger sibling rather than an older one. Before that, my interest was exclusively in newspaper comic strips, and as late as high school I likely expressed a preference for strips, my ambition at the time to be a newspaper comics artist. I grew up surrounded by Calvin and Hobbes books, and that strip in particular was among the most important things to me in the world.

I distinctly remember my sixth grade classroom getting a daily copy of The Oregonian, which we students completely ignored, except for the comics. My best friend and I would both race into the room in the morning to be the first to get it. Probably most of the time one of us walked in to see the other already reading, but my mind latches onto the times that it came down to seconds, both of us risking censure by running, and who prevailed could be decided by where exactly the paper had been placed.

The Oregonian ran two pages of comics, but at that age and after that level of competition, sharing was unthinkable for either of us. When I lost, the wait before my turn was excruciating, more to do with the loss than the comics themselves, which even then I knew mostly didn’t deserve the love I heaped on them. My very first website, made around this time, when I was learning HTML, contained my first piece of criticism, a condemnation of Jim David and Garfield. It would later house some of my first tries at comics, and for that I am glad no trace of it remains.

By now I had started reading comic books as well, but only just. My first comics purchase had been the previous year, when I was 11 and my brother Dylan was 9. We both attended the same school, after which we would be picked up by Nick, the au pair who lived with us, and taken to Sandy Grand Slam, our long-gone first local comic shop. I was merely dragged along at first, staring into space while Dylan bought X-Men and Spawn, until one week out of boredom I selected one Batman comic and one Superman one, neither one anything special, yet somehow capturing my imagination.

 
Despite not being that great, these two comics are probably the reason I’m not a lawyer.

Owned by Jim Walker, Sandy Grand Slam’s original location was above a gun store, but it soon moved to a bigger location nearby, before leaving town altogether and becoming Interzone Comics in Gresham. After a few years, Jim sold Interzone and opened a store back in Sandy specializing in gaming. For a while during college I maintained a pull list at the Sandy store before it too closed. Years later I ran into Jim again at the Portland Comic Book Show, where he shared a retail booth, and I got to tell him I now worked in the comics field thanks to the passion for the medium his store had originally instilled in me nearly a decade earlier. He seemed proud, and telling him about my job felt more important than telling anyone else I could think of.

My memory of those stores from my childhood is of them primarily being DC and Marvel-based, no surprise in a small enough town that there couldn’t have been much audience for more indie fare. However, Jim was great about ordering whatever I requested, surely the thing that kept me interested even as Dylan outgrew the comics he read and left the medium instead of moving onto different series. An old-school place, it also had a large back issue section, which came to take more and more of my money as the habit grew. A big chunk of my stapled comics from before 1995, especially Batman ones, come from that store. As I came to prefer paperbacks over stapled comics, Jim also allowed me to trade back completed miniseries for a reasonable discount off of the collected edition, and over time got pretty good at guessing the kinds of things I’d want to get in each format—I read every Oni Press comic at the time, and he would order the single issues of anything that was two issues or less, because they probably wouldn’t be collected, and the collection of anything longer.

Many stories about someone’s history in comics will note their lapse in the hobby, usually “when I discovered girls.” I never had a lapse, which I suppose compensates for my coming in late, though there have been periods where I’ve read fewer comics than other times, and the genre mix has fluctuated from heavy superhero periods to periods where I read none at all. I did discover girls (though in recent years I seem to have undiscovered them), but kept the comics-reading to myself. Not secret, since all of them knew I read comics, but I didn’t talk about it much with them. Not many people I knew read comics until I went to high school in Portland, where I actually got to take a comics class and where we read Maus in Humanities. No one I’ve ever dated has been a regular comics reader, though a college girlfriend did tear through all nine of my Preacher volumes (outside of the odd volume of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, this was an isolated incident, and some of her final words to me years later were, “I hate comics, because they make me think of you!”).

At first, I read exclusively Batman comics. After buying those first two issues, Detective Comics Annual #5 (because it had a cool cover featuring the Joker) and Adventures of Superman #0 (because the #0 implied it was a starting place, though this proved to be a lie), neither of them new at the time, I signed up for a pull list with Batman and Superman in it, but learning there were then four monthly Batman titles, I quickly changed my list to those, dropping Superman without ever picking up an issue. I didn’t subscribe to Batman Adventures until much later, somehow already sensing that as the kids’ version of Batman, it didn’t “count” in the tight continuity the other titles shared.

 
After this, there was no going back.

If the monthly Batman titles hadn’t been better than the two I picked up at first, the habit probably wouldn’t have stuck, but I came in during the “Troika” storyline that reintroduced Bruce Wayne as Batman after former Robin Dick Grayson temporarily filled in, making it a pretty decent introduction to someone new to the ’90s status quo. I also caught the final chapter of Legends of the Dark Knight’s “Going Sane,” a character-defining Joker story by J. M. DeMatteis and Joe Staten, which had me tracking down the other three parts for months to come, obsessed with what had led to the bizarre finale that I read over and over. Shadow of the Bat, written by Alan Grant, focused more on villains and lingered on the psychological aspects of each story, as well as including experiments like illustrating two issues with Barry Kitson’s unfinished art. It was a weird and sometimes confusing read, and came in only second to Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’s monster-infused Batman as my favorite of the bunch. Their Batman, with unusual storytelling choices like splash pages that ran all of the dialogue down the middle of the page, like reading a play, an entertaining focus on Detective Harvey Bullock, and Jones’s demonic take on the titular character, is probably the single biggest factor in my becoming a comics fan. Detective Comics didn’t hit me as hard as the others, but Chuck Dixon’s solid, action-packed stories were a great counterbalance to the others.

(Sidebar: Long before all this, I had read assorted Archie comics, mainly at the home of my friend Chris, who in my memory, had dozens of Archie Double Digests in a huge glass bowl. In retrospect, I bet it was a regular-sized bowl with a handful of Archies in it, but it has stuck in my memory, even if I didn’t really equate Archie and comics at the time. Dylan also read them, as did Chris’s twin sister April. None of us would have considered ourselves comics fans at the time, but Archies are for everyone, not just the faithful. Self promotion: A longer version of this story and how it’s echoed into my later comics fandom is in my intro for Archie Archives vol. 5. Ask your parents for $50, kids!)

In seventh grade, my homeroom class took a trip to Seattle. On the way up we stopped at a convenience store, where I bought the comic that changed everything. JLA #1 had come out the month before and I’d skipped it, but having finished all of my reading material already and in need of something to keep me busy for 20 more minutes of the trip, I gave it a shot. It had Batman on the cover, after all. My delay in picking it up meant I missed issue #2 and didn’t read it for a long time, but issues #3 and #4, the rest of the opening arc, and Superman’s speech at the end, essentially the series’ mission statement, hooked me, and from then on I was a Grant Morrison fan. It was one of the first times I would follow a writer rather than characters.

The progression was pretty quick from there. From JLA I moved on to other Morrison comics, from his The Invisibles I moved on to other Vertigo comics, which led to Dark Horse and other indie books. At the same time, my mainstream fandom was getting deeper; I read a lot of different DC comics now, some of which didn’t even include Batman at all. In the early 2000’s, Marvel began hiring a lot of the writers and artists I read in Oni comics and other publishers of a similar size, including a guy named Brian Michael Bendis, whose Fortune and Glory had a kid taking his first film classes in stitches. At a time when it would have been easy for me to move away from superhero comics altogether, Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil bought that part of the hobby a few more years.

Now studying film at USC, a career in comics was far from my mind, and my dreams of being a syndicated strip artist were fading. My last real burst of energy in that direction was Naked in Class, a strip I worked up to pitch to the Daily Trojan, arriving in their office with a month’s worth of dailies, which were rejected unseen. The student editor I spoke with told me that the paper didn’t do daily comics, then glancing down at the one on top, she said, apologetically, “It looks really good” (ten years later, I will make no claims as to the strip’s quality one way or the other—I had just turned 18). Considering the fortunes of newspapers today, she did me such a favor.


Say what you will about these, or the 23 others I made at the same time, but they got me girls freshman year of college.

Thanks in large part to the creative period Marvel was going through with the Ultimate universe, Bendis’s Daredevil, Garth Ennis’s Punisher, Morrison’s New X-Men, and Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Force, college was one of my biggest superhero periods, and I had my pull list mailed to me from Portland’s Excalibur Comics, the shipping costs wiping out the pull list discount, supplemented with periodic visits to Golden Apple Comics on Melrose Avenue, a trek that took some commitment. I had a roommate one year who was into comics, and I made the trip in his car a few times, but when I went by myself I had to contend with LA’s bus system, which totally exists despite what you might think, but isn’t exactly user-friendly. To get to Melrose Avenue was a nearly two-hour trip each way, with a long wait between the two unconnected bus lines that ran between me and my destination. Still and all, it was worth it to be in that environment now and again, and it was at Golden Apple that I met Morrison, Kyle Baker, George Gladir and others.

My love of the Fantastic Four took off around this time, too, starting when I bought Essential Fantastic Four vol. 1 to keep me busy on a 24-hour-plus train ride to visit my girlfriend (the one who read Preacher and hates me now) in Southern California during the summer. This is when I finally understood Jack Kirby, who hadn’t been particularly important to me before, dying the year before I bought my first comics. His work didn’t make sense to me until I read it in black and white, and now I have an entire shelf of DC’s Jack Kirby Omnibuses, and am partway through Kamandi vol. 1. During college I would also first read Jimmy Corrigan, Akira, From Hell, and many others. I never joined USC’s comic book club, as their yearbook photo showed them all in superhero costumes.

 
These are also comics.

I also remember a bimonthly comics show in the Shrine Auditorium, the theater where the Oscars used to be held (and where my film school graduation took place). Situated between campus and my apartment, it’s the most convenient convention I’ve ever attended. Mostly dealer-based, it was full of cheap buys, but also attracted some cool guests, like when I bought the first issue of Hero Squared from Keith Giffen and Ross Richie before BOOM! Studios started, and less popular guests, like the bored-looking Verne Troyer manning his empty table while the loudspeaker reminded apathetic shoppers of his presence every 15 minutes. A different roommate and I attended one month to see an advance screening of Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman and Kevin Conroy’s Q&A afterward.

After college, the responsibilities of truly taking care of myself without help for the first time and looking for work cut down on the time and budget I would have for comics, and I can’t recall where I would have had a pull list at the time, though it’s inconceivable that I wouldn’t have had one. Finishing college feels like a good place to quit, since we’ll soon get into “how I broke into comics” territory, which later in the month will be Secret Origin part 2.

 

 

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