Sage's Stray Thoughts 10
I comment on a ton of superhero books on Jumping in Headfirst because in all honesty, that's where my heart is. I love the complexity of Marvel and DC's ever-growing, ever-evolving patchwork universes. Some people describe them as a "pain" to keep up with, but not for me. I grew up reading superhero comics, so as Bane once put it: "you merely adopted cape comics, I was born in them."
Plus I never bought into the "Alan Moore narrative" that all post-Watchmen superhero comics have to suck, or that they don't have anything to teach us. They can still inspire us to do, and be more than we are, when we let them. Just as importantly, there's nothing stopping any creator who cares from creating stories that are just as compelling and as captivating as any independent story.
Still and all, despite my love for superhero titles...growing up I had a pretty extensive indie phase. In my teenage years, I was obsessed with reading the "touchstones" of this subculture I had so immersed myself in, so much so that I kept a list of Wizard Magazine's 100 Greatest Graphic Novels and burned my way through as much of it as I could with the limited resources of a teenager.
One of the first titles I ever read that didn't involve heroes was Garth Ennis' Preacher. It was around 2002 and I was about fourteen years old, which means that my mother probably gave me way too much leeway as a kid because that wasn't something you should give to anyone under the age of 17. It was crass; full of sexual undertones (and overtones!), blood, swearing, gore, swearing, and ultraviolence. So of course, being an impressionable teenager, I excitedly burned through every single issue and gleefully looked for more with each one I finished. Garth was a North Irishman who managed to take every single stereotype about the South and use them to craft an gripping story that took place over several years and dozens of issues, pissing off anyone even remotely conservative along the way.
Thinking back, it was really weird being from a super-Christian home and letting this atheist take the piss with my religion. I mean, the dude seriously pulled no punches and basically shat all over everything I believed in, but I never stopped reading. I wasn't trying to be rebellious--I still went to church every Sunday and read the bible every night. I started out just wanting to experience one of these great, "critically acclaimed" books I'd heard so much about. Honestly I was more pissed when they finally offed my favorite character (Cassidy) than anything else.
The second title I tried out was Neil Gaiman's Sandman. A sublime seventy-five issue series that seemed to capture the essence of dream and nightmare and found a way to make the personifications of so many heady concepts relatable. It began with the King of Dreams escaping from a cage that he'd been captured in for over seven centuries, now forced to adapt to the way the world had changed in his absence. Basically the Captain America story without all the brightly-colored spandex.
It's kinda turned into Baby's First Comic now--it's the book goth kids and young adults talk about to show how they're "into" comics, and there's a good chance if someone claims to hate cape books but love comics that Sandman's on their shortlist of "good books".
But that isn't Neil's fault--to the contrary, it says a lot about his frankly terrifying amount of skill that he was able to create a book that could stand the test of time and speak to so many people, myself included. Where Preacher went for the shock value to drag a teenaged Sage in, Sandman spoke my inner intellectual. It seemed as if each issue Neil would toss out a dozen new ideas, balancing the complex characterizations of both his own characters and modernized, "grown up" versions of ancient fairy tales and religious figures.
The book was a transformative experience for me, showing me how it was possible to write a book without superheroes that could not only be interesting, but superb. And at the same time, Neil wasn't averse to inviting a superhero into his stories--both Superman and the Martian Manhunter made appearances--it was obvious he loved superheroes, but wanted to do his own thing. I could understand that--more importantly, I respected it.
By the time I turned 17 though, indie comics had kinda become old hat for me. That's why while I loved Transmetropolitan, it didn't really shake me much. It's got one of the few examples of a heterosexual friendship between a man and a woman without disgustingly high levels of UST, but aside from that I don't recall much that was groundshaking for me in the ways that Preacher and Sandman were. Again, I loved Warren Ellis' story of futuristic gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem, he of the multi-colored shades and permanent fuck you grin, but it wasn't the life-altering experience I was used to. Still and all, there's nothing wrong with a fantastically written story in a slightly realistic setting either.
Naturally though, trying out my favorite writer's major independent work would tear my whole shit up. I was going into my Senior year at high school and I'd spent plenty of time reading Morrison's work, but yikes...I had no idea what I was in for with this ragtag band of freedom fighters who seemed to be fighting against the very concept of evil itself. I remember getting roughly five issues into The Invisibles before starting to feel like my own reality was falling apart at the seams. There was seriously a moment where I felt as if I could reach out and "feel" the membrane of what I thought to be real, and if I pushed too hard it would crack.
Reading Supergods now, I see Morrison intended to give us "the secrets of the universe" within that sixty issue opus. I'm not sure if he succeeded, but I do remember reading the most batshit crazy comic book I've ever experienced--ever--so there's that. Invisibles was kind of the capstone on my indie phase, as my hormones balanced out in my late teens and I tried to wander back to some sense of normalcy. I felt like I had experienced the craziest shit possible with that book, so all that was left were cape comics. It's not like I stopped reading indie books altogether (I found one of my favorites, Mage: The Hero Defined, after I got out of high school), but I kinda made my way back towards the weekly grind and didn't actively seek them out much anymore.
Still, my "indie phase" was time well spent. When I came back to superheroes I found myself being more picky about my cape fiction, and a lot more open-minded in my actual life. Growing up in as small a town as mine, I met a lot of people whose lives were much like mine. All the kids my age attended the same school, we all seemed to watch the same shows, and even if we weren't all going to the same church we most certainly had the same religion. Indie comics were my first (and for a while, only) experience with people of other religions, other sexual orientations, other lifestyles than the ones I'd known. They served as a window into worlds that were in some ways like my own, but in others wholly dissimilar, but they all got the point across that just because people were different, they were still just that: people. With all the faults and brilliance that comes with that, and deserving of the same love and respect.
In any case--on some level I like to think I'm doing better than most fans of independent funnybooks, as they all seem obsessed with pointing out how bad superhero comics have been since Marv Wolfman and George Perez stopped doing Teen Titans. I'll give books from both side of the fence a shot if they catch my eye.
I wrote all that to say this: Now that DC's cocked up their line by "saving us" from complex character development, and Marvel's kind of stalled while we wait for Secret Wars...where are the indie books? The good ones. And ones that are good while also not being comic book versions of existing properties. I thought the whole point of independent comics was to show comic books had potential beyond just being the continuing adventures of corporate concepts. I love Transformers: More than Meets the Eye (and Robots in Disguise), but it's kind of weird that it's one of the best independent comics I can think of. Many of the rest seem overly obsessed with horror or so busy being "alternative" they don't appear to be actually telling good stories.
As I gear up to start my own comic writing I'm starting to look away from superheroes for new influences, starting with Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals, Amy Reeder's Rocket Girl, Brian K. Vaughn's Saga, and more...but I find it most disconcerting that with all the freedom and options writers have today, so many of them have decided instead to write things like Django/Zorro. And while I'm certain Matt Wagner both: A.) wrote a great comic and B.) doesn't give a shit about my opinion, I'd really just like to read Mage: The Hero Denied.