Sunday, January 13, 2013

The curse of being liked by me

I started collecting comic-books as a kid.  There are several approaches to collecting. For example, some people collect everything having to do with a particular character (such as trying to buy every appearance of Batman).  Others try to follow creators, such as collecting everything written by Walt Simonson or everything drawn by George Perez.  Others will try to collect particular series, such as trying to get every issue of the Avengers or Teen Titans.

I didn't really follow any of those patterns. I liked certain characters a great deal (Supergirl, Batman, Captain America), but what I tended to do was decide it was time to add a title to my collection list, and then cast about among different comic-books for a few months until I settled on one that I really liked -- one with good characters, decent writing, and attractive art.  If it was good enough, and the team had been working on it long enough, then I would try to get back-issues and build up my collection both going forward, and backward.

Unfortunately, over the years it seemed like, as soon as I became truly interested in a title, especially as soon as I became a devotee, the company would either cancel it, or else would change the staff or the series in such a way that the title was no longer enjoyable.  There is a long list of such occurrences, but let me recite a few examples, and then I will mention the most recent one, which happened just in the last few weeks.

X-Men (1983)

In the early 1980s, my friend +Stuart Johnson was a huge fan of X-men, and he finally convinced me to try it.  X-men was in the 160s or so at the time, but I started with some re-prints he had of the first five or six issues (by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), and then some other issues in the 50s to 60s, followed by reading "Giant Size X-Men #1", in which the team was completely changed to a new roster, and finally reading his individual issues from the early 100s to the current ones.  Since Stu had many issues, this meant reading probably well over 75 comics, over a course of many months, as he loaned me a few at a time.  By the time I had reached the 160s, which had a story-arc about the X-Men battling some space aliens, I had decided I loved the comic and wanted to start collecting it.  The artist at that time was excellent (Paul Smith). And my favorite X-Man had become Storm, for her elegance, grace, nobility, and purity of heart.  She was a true hero.

And so, I got to the end of Stuart's collection, and went to the comic shop to buy the current issue.  And within 4 months, X-Men changed the art team (replacing Smith with John Romita Jr., who's sloppy-looking style was not one I appreciated), and had dramatically changed Storm into a bloodthirsty Wolverine-type character.  Literally as I started collecting X-Men, two of the main reasons I had for collecting the series (based on dozens of back-issues) were destroyed.  This is a perfect example of the historical pattern, that when I decide I really love a series, the company finds a way to ruin what I loved about it.

Thor (1987)

That same friend, +Stuart Johnson, a few years later insisted that I try reading his Thor back-issues.  That series was being written and drawn by Walt Simonson, a creator about whom I knew very little at the time. For months, I stupidly resisted, because I had never really liked Thor as a character.  But Stuart is persistent, and eventually, I agreed to read a couple of issues. He gave me Thor #338, the second issue Simonson had done in what became a 45-issue streak, and I enjoyed it.  He then loaned me a few Thor issues each week as I slowly got caught up. By the 340s, I was hooked, and by the 350s, I had made up my mind that, once I finished with all the back-issues, I was going to start collecting Thor myself.  Well, reading Thor a few issues per week for such a long run takes a while, so a few months went by.  Then, finally, I got to the most recent one, Thor #382. It was excellent, as usual.  I was all set to start collecting the series starting the next month. Except... Thor #382 was Simonson's final issue.  The next issue, the first new one I bought, featured an entirely new creative team, a new direction for the title, and an erasure of all the reasons I'd had for wanting to collect it in the first place.  Once again, just when I decided I loved a series, the publisher changed it in a way that made me not want to read it. (The story does have a bit of a happy ending, since I eventually managed to acquire all 45 back-issues, and they are currently stored in Mylar bags in my apartment... that run has been the pride of my collection for many years.)

Hawk and Dove (1990-1991)

I'd never heard of Hawk and Dove until I read a friend's back-issues of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which the original Dove, Don Hall, is killed.  Even so, I wasn't all that interested in the characters.  They had their own series, and I paid very little attention to it, until a friend of mine started telling me how good the series was.  Finally, when the Hawk and Dove series was on #22, decided to try it.  I also was able to grab #21 and #20, since they were still on the news stand.  It took only the very first issue (20) for me to be hooked. The writing was fantastic, the characterization was great, the main stars had interesting powers, and the art, if not mind blowing, was solid.  Over the next 6 months, I spent money and time tracking down the rest of the series, as well as the entire 5-issue mini-series that had pre-dated it (and re-launched the duo).  It took me until issue #27 was on the stands to complete my Hawk and Dove collection.  And what happened next? They ended the series on issue #28, and then, during the "Armageddon 2001" summer crossover that year, they killed off Dove and made Hawk a villain.  Once again, no sooner do I get "on board" with a series and become a devotee than they destroy it.

Batgirl -- almost (2012)

Fast-forward to today.  Just last month, in December, I decided to get back into comic-books for the first time in 13 years (for why, see this article and this one).  Once again, because I tend to have similar tastes to his, I relied upon my good friend, +Stuart Johnson, for which titles are worth collecting.  Among his recommendations was one that surprised me: Batgirl.  Stuart's never been much of a "bat-fan" -- I don't think he's ever spent much money collecting Batman, Detective Comics, Catwoman, or any of the other Bat-related series. Since I had always been more of a bat-fan than he was, I figured Batgirl was a reasonable series to collect, along with my old stand-by series of Batman and Detective Comics.  It took only one issue for me to see that neither of the titles about Batman interested me, but Batgirl was a different story. It was very well written by author Gail Simone (one of the few women working in comics today).  Her characterization of Batgirl was outstanding. The writing was witty and clever.  The plot was easy to follow but complex and interesting.  Within a few weeks, I had read the first 6 issues (I ended up buying a hardcover book of the first 6-issue story arc, I liked it so much), and firmly placed Batgirl written by Gail Simone at the top of my list, as probably the best-written comic title on the market today (at least, of the ones I have read).

So what do you think happened?  Apparently, on December 11, pretty much on the day I started reading (and loving) Simone's Batgirl, the morons running the show at DC Comics fired her from the book. According to Comics Alliance, Simone tweeted her departure from the title on that day.  Now, given my immediate love for this series and this author, the firing of Simone should come as no surprise.  Steve likes the series, therefore DC will do everything in their power to either ruin it, or will cancel it.  It's practically a Law of Nature at this point.  But apparently, some new supernatural forces are at work (maybe the whole Digital comics thing has changed the nature of reality?), because that same article states that within 2 weeks, Simone made another tweet that she had been re-hired to continue on Batgirl. And maybe the Digital age has interfered with the erstwhile rules of nature. In the past, by the time we found out Simone was off the title (when the first issue without her was put on the stands), it would have been too late to do anything about it (months go by between the time a comic is written and when it is published).  But in today's digital age, people found out the day it happened, and were able to bombard DC with enough backlash about this to force the editors to reconsider.

The backlash, by the way, was well earned by DC. Simone is easily the best current writer of comic-books that I have seen. She's doing an outstanding job of writing Batgirl.  And she is one of the few women actually doing the writing on a comic starring a female character (something we need more of in comics, not less).  What kind of editorial stupidity would it take to fire her in the first place? I suppose that question will remain forever unanswered.

Collector Beware

The upshot of all this is to just warn folks. If you love a particular comic-book series, you should be very careful about suggesting to me that I might like it, or worse convincing me to collect it. Fair warning here: My devotion to a series is like a death sentence either for the character, the creative team, or the series itself. Indeed, you're probably better off telling me your favorite series sucks.. Or waiting until the run you are enjoying is over and then telling me to pick up the back-issues, so I can't destroy it by loving it.  Because one of the things that you can almost always count on, is that Steve liking a series is pretty much the end of whatever was good about that series in the first place.

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