Thursday, July 29, 2010

Comics That Changed Me: Imperial Guard#1

The 1990s are considered one of the lowest points in comic book history. Much of this poor reputation has to do with the collapse and near-destruction of the direct market, but it also has a lot to do with the perceived quality of the typical 90s comic. Because there was such a boom in the first half of the 90s - not only increasing the number of titles being published but the very number of publishers themselves - it led to a lot of sub-par material seeing print just to fill up shelf space, all in a misguided belief that the customers had bottomless wallets and infinite forbearance.

However, I don't think enough credit has been given to those titles in the latter half of the 90s which tried to stem the tide and produce quality work. In particular, there was a strong effort from writers like Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek to reexamine old storytelling models and pay homage to the past; it's sometimes referred to as "reconstructionist" super hero comics.

I've already described how I lost interest in comics, but by 1997 I started to cautiously ease myself back into the hobby. This was a little problematic for two reasons: first, the local comic shop went out-of-business during the crash, so outside of scouring local gas stations and convenience stores (which I did), I had to journey to a city (the nearest an hour's drive away) to be certain I kept up with my favorite titles; second, I was saving up for college and for the first time in my life had to be mindful of my bank balance, for before too long, I wouldn't have my parents covering my room & board.

So, with the reconstructionist movement gaining ground by 1997, it was a pretty good time for me to get back into comics and rediscover why I loved the medium. That's why my first great purchase was...Imperial Guard#1?!

Writer: Brian Augustyn. Art: Chuck Wojtkiewicz, Ray Snyder.

The Shi'ar Imperial Guard are sent to Earth in an effort to bolster the ranks of Earth's heroes (the Avengers & Fantastic Four having been lost at the end of the Onslaught crossover in '96). The eight-man squad of Guardsmen suffers from internal strife as their blue-skinned Kree warrior conscript Commando isn't happy to be serving the Shi'ar, conquerors of his people. But the Guard quickly finds a menace they're well-suited to combat when the Underground Militia begins waging war on super heroes.

So...the Imperial Guard. They were originally an in-joke, modeled after DC's Legion of Super-Heroes and usually appeared during X-Men stories set around the Shi'ar. Hence, this oddball three-issue mini-series earned an "X" in the above corner box, identifying it as part of the X-Men family.

I liked the idea of an Imperial Guard comic book in part because I liked the Legion of Super-Heroes. I hadn't read DC comics in years, but had fond memories of the Silver Age Legion reprint stories I had owned (and purged in '95) and the few Levitz-Giffen issues I had (also purged).

I was also drawn to the Imperial Guard because I really disliked the "Heroes Reborn" concept which was occurring at the time. Heroes Reborn sent the supposedly-dead Avengers & Fantastic Four to a new world where popular Image creators could reboot their histories. The Guard, however, was set in Marvel's usual continuity and used Onslaught as a way to kick start the series concept; there's even an appearance by three of the Avengers who didn't wind up in Heroes Reborn, firmly planting this in the real Marvel Universe.

I also had a bit of a shock when I saw the way Imperial Guard was coloured; it may not mean much to you now, but the computer colouring process which took over comics in the last half of the 90s was quite striking then, particularly to someone who had skipped a year's worth of the technology's development.

And then, there's Mark Gruenwald; everything comes back to him, eh? Imperial Guard was dedicated to his memory for reasons unclear to me; perhaps he was involved in the series' gestation, perhaps the writer was simply a fan or protégé of Gruenwald. Whatever, that little dedication won me over.

At the end of Imperial Guard#3 there was a house ad for a new Marvel comic book series by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. It was called Thunderbolts and it happened to catch my fancy. Thunderbolts soon became the anchor that held me in comics for years to come; even during periods where I couldn't guarantee making my $400 monthly rent, I still kept to a 4 comic books per month ration as my primary entertainment expense. Quitting comics again? Out of the question.

Next time: how one panel made me rethink an artist's entire body of work.

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