Friday, June 3, 2011

In comic media res

Now that even Hitler has weighed in on DC's reboot, it doesn't seem like there's much else worth talking about. Having spent Wednesday discussing issue #1s which didn't work on me, then on Thursday describing a line-wide jumping-on point which didn't really work, I thought I'd close this Friday by considering a few instances where I jumped into an ongoing series and stayed with it.

Since I've already discussed first issues and jumping-on points, I'd like to consider the alternative - jumping into a series in the thick of it and somehow becoming enamored with the series. How does it happen? Read on for examples...

Captain America#355

I blogged about this one last year; it wasn't my first issue of Captain America (a friend of my father's gave the family almost every issue from Cap#293-299), but #355 was where I began reading Mark Gruenwald's Captain America, keeping pace almost every issue until Gruenwald departed with #443. Although this issue was the first part of a three-part story where Captain America was transformed into a teenager, it had running subplots and old continuity to the galore; so what did my 11 year old self find appealing about it and why did I stick around?

Let's start with the continuity. The issue opens with Captain America examining dozens of monitor screens with references to the past few months of Cap (and Avengers besides). None of it is important to the story at hand, but only hinted at the larger world Cap inhabited, so I was daunted. Much was made of the recent death of John Walker, the replacement Captain America who was assassinated in Cap#351. As the issue opens, Cap learns Walker is alive and the government has a new identity for him (the U.S.Agent, introduced in the previous issue). All of this is dealt with through conversations, so the business involving Walker went right over my head; I had no idea who Walker was. Still, it was just one conversation.

Then the real plot starts as Cap is contacted by his old flame Bernie Rosenthal (whom I was acquainted with from Cap#293-299!). She asks Cap to find her missing teenage sister. Recognizing a pattern of missing teens, Cap has the odd idea to go undercover as a teenager by employing the mischevious Sersi to turn back the clock; of course, when Cap was a teen he was a scrawny, sickly kid, so he's in no shape for a fight. Because Captain America hadn't met Sersi before, the story does a fine job of introducing her to new readers, such as I.

The story diverts to follow up on Battlestar, who was Walker's sidekick. He's been trying to find out if Walker is still alive and finally learns the truth here, but is told if Walker wants to see him, he'll contact him. Hoping to find a lead on Walker, he goes to Cap's former sidekick Falcon and finds him in the middle of a fight with three members of the Serpent Society (recurring Cap foes). Battlestar's subplot wound up running for a quite some time as he toured the background of Captain America, trying to find Walker. In retrospect, it's odd that Battlestar never went to the star of the book - Captain America - and asked for his help (of course, then the subplot would be over the same issue). Battlestar eventual reunion with the U.S.Agent led in turn to resolving some of Walker's issues which weren't tied up until...#383! Again, my lack of knowledge where Walker was concerned left me befuddled as to the purpose of Battlestar's quest, but it didn't really matter - he teams up with the Falcon (again, I knew Falcon from #293-299) and they fight some bad guys! Easy to follow.

Cap's story wraps up with him wandering right into the clutches of the Sisters of Sin, who are responsible for the missing teens. Sisters of Sin? They were antagonists in Cap#293-299! Full circle! So, the unfamiliar world of Captain America wasn't that unfamiliar after all; it was easy to stay with Captain America after this. As adults, comic book fans only seem to enjoy using continuity to point out the flaws in a writer's story, as though continuity exists to undermine creators. However, as a kid I loved continuity because it heightened the experience of reading fiction to not only comprehend overt references to earlier stories but to identify subversive references to earlier stories. While reading Cap#355, I knew more about the Sisters of Sin than what the text itself told me about them, and that made me feel special. Through continuity, we fans feel we're "in."

Uncanny X-Men#268

X-Men was a cool kid's book in my heyday, so what better reason to avoid it? I wasn't a cool kid. Still, my cousins liked the X-Men and their peer pressure powers were quite overwhelming. I gave in with this issue because I saw Captain America on the cover. I was already developing a fondness for Cap (I heard he had a movie in the works so I thought I'd be preemptively cool by liking him before anyone else; oy), so I justified this as a Captain America purchase.

You want to talk back story? How about subplots? A cast of thousands? Oh boy, that's Chris Claremont's X-Men and those writers who followed him on the series kept up the same intensity of long-running (sometimes abandoned) plots and soap operas. Still, this issue is pretty easy to follow for a novice: Wolverine, Jubilee & Psylocke are the X-Men (the X-Men were broken into 3-4 different casts at the time, so your featured players varied issue-to-issue); they meet Wolverine's old friend the Black Widow while battling some bad guys; this prompts flashbacks to World War II when Wolverine and Captain America saved the young Black Widow from the Hand ninja cult. Oh, and a new group of villains are waiting in the wings. There's so much in these 22 pages!

As a novice X-Men fan, it was easy for me to assume ignorance of all of this; in fact, there's ton of subtle continuity going on in this issue which would be lost on many in today's readership (ie, Ivan Petrovitch appearing). But the subtle touches don't matter - they're there to please Claremont, most likely; they're simply garnishing the story at hand (pun?) and the story itself is simple to follow; larger-than-life characters enjoy larger-than-life adventures and they don't skimp on the snappy banter. I'd found my gateway into the X-Men and, outside of the 2 years I spent not buying comics, some aspect of the X-Men have been in my collecting ever since.

It's strange for me to see this story alluded to now as some sort of "classic." Am I that old? Seriously, there are multiple homages to this cover? Just because Jim Lee drew it, or...? It's the issue of X-Men where Jim Lee drew Captain America; it stood out then, it stands out even now.

Usagi Yojimbo#126

Well, the twenty years between Uncanny X-Men#268 and Usagi Yojimbo#126 are a bit of a blur. I've collected many, many titles since then, but so far as I can recall, in each instance I either began with issue #1, caught up on what I'd missed through trade paperbacks or a friend's collection or I had come aboard with a jumping-on point which was about as good as a #1.

For some time, my friend Texcap had been urging me to read Usagi Yojimbo. I wasn't unfamiliar with Usagi, having read a couple of issues from the 80s, but I was hesitant to start reading it now. Even though Texcap assured me I could begin reading Usagi with any issue, I was reluctant. When I met Usagi's writer/artist/letterer Stan Sakai at a convention, I told him I would wait to start reading Usagi after his earliest stories were collected in the giant-sized (ultimately long-delayed) Special Edition. "Oh," Sakai remarked, "you're one of those."

Why was it so easy for me to jump into the midst of tangled continuity-heavy late 80s super hero books as a young teen, but difficult for the adult me to sample a self-contained series? It was basically fear of the unknown, but why did I think I wouldn't enjoy Usagi Yojimbo unless I began with issue #1? Was it simply an excuse to keep me from trying a comic book? Even if it were a very good comic book? If Usagi were cancelled tomorrow, ending Sakai's 20+ year one-man creative expression, how would I feel about that? Wasn't I already giving chances to plenty of brand-new untested talent at Marvel, DC, Image, etc?

So, I began reading Usagi Yojimbo with #126, which was a done-in-one story. I've read Usagi ever since, even as I've been gathering up all of the Usagi trades and filling myself in on the back story; it's something of a collector's Ouroboros. Texcap and Sakai were both right - it doesn't matter. The series has occasional multi-part stories, but the character relationships are always very clear; you know who's friends with whom; who distrusts whom; whose sworn vengeance against whom.

Since Gruenwald's Captain America and Claremont's X-Men are but relics of the past, my closing recommendation is to suggest if you aren't currently reading Usagi Yojimbo...ask yourself, "why not?"

1 comment:

Glendon Mellow said...

Really enjoying your reviews, speaking as a child of the Eighties, former X-Men/Elfquest/Strikeforce Morituri/Strange Tales Vol2 fan.

I remember that issue with Cap, Wolverine and Black Widow. It blew me away that Cap and Wolvie would know each other. Got a real thrill when I was watching the new Avengers EMH on and saw the Cap episode with Logan.

Anyway, keep em coming, Michael!