Monday, November 16, 2009

Thinking About Comics

This past weekend I sat down with Batman: The Long Halloween, and its follow-up, Batman: Dark Victory, and I realized something. Those two stories combine to make up my favorite Batman comic ever written. And, yes, I consider the two volumes to be one large story.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale Batman: The Long Halloween coverAs I read through Long Halloween for the dozenth time, I started thinking about how epic the plot was and how cinematic the storytelling was--both the images and the dialogue.

And I started thinking about how relevant the themes still are. Written in the mid-90s, when comics were still more interested in boobs and guns and pockets on costumes than they were in storytelling and substance, Long Halloween was something else, entirely. It was a murder mystery, a whodunnit that spanned 13 issues and shipped month-to-month.

It was a story about good and evil, and choosing to do what's right even though it means sacrificing everything you want. Clearly, themes that will always resonate with readers. The dynamic between Batman/Bruce Wayne, then-Lieutenant Jim Gordon, and new District Attorney Harvey Dent brings the emotional whallop to the story that we all witnessed at the movie theater last summer in The Dark Knight.

Long Halloween picks up where Frank Miller's seminal Batman: Year One leaves off. It tells the story of the rest of Batman's first year as Gotham's vigilante, and once Dark Victory ends, Batman has just finished his third year as a crime fighter. He's picked up a partner along the way, Jim Gordon has become Commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department, and Harvey Dent is lost forever, leaving only Two-Face in his place.

Now, I wasn't into comics when either title was shipping monthly. And I was four years old when Year One came out. Heck, I still wasn't into comics when Dark Victory came out in 1999. I started buying and reading comics sometime in 2003, once both titles were already bona fide classics of the medium, and had been in trade paperback form for a few years already.

Growing up, I knew, as all American kids do, the origin of Batman. Parents gunned down. Becomes a vigilante. He and his sidekick, Robin, fight bad guys and live in a mansion and hang out in the Batcave.

But Long Halloween is the definitive origin story for me, and I'm assuming, a lot of people my age. I mean, sure, Year One is The Story of how Batman got started. And, as great as Year One is (personally, I like it better than Dark Knight Returns), it leaves us wanting more. Needing to know more. It leaves gaps in the time. Questions that need to be answered.

And Long Halloween answers those questions.

To me, it's the best Two-Face story ever written, and it's heartbreaking and uplifting and real. It's the book that I point to whenever I need to introduce someone to the medium. The whole thing is told with recaps in the form of captions at the start of every issue, and anyone can jump on and enjoy the story.

I wasn't a comic book crazy person when I read Long Halloween the first time around, and I was able to follow everything just fine. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale created something that will always be easy to read and will never be shrouded in confusing continuity issues.

Sure, it's kina cheating, as it's an anachronistic story dealing with the first time events happen and people appear, so there's some room to play with on that front. But it's a story I'd give to, let's say, my Dad (who definitely doesn't read comics) and say, "Here. You'll get this, and I think you'll like this."

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale Batman: Dark Victory coverAnd as I read through it again this weekend, that's one thing that kept popping into my head. The utter accesibility of the thing. It's no surprise that Long Halloween was the story that Chris Nolan turned to when he wanted to introduce movie-goers to Harvey Dent.

When I finished reading Dark Victory, I started thinking about my first year. Not as a crime fighter who dresses up like a bat (we don't even want to think about that year), but my first year in comics. And I realized something else. Had I not gotten into the industry at the exact moment that I did, there's a very good chance I would never have stuck with the funnybooks.

Just within the first months of my walking into a comics shop and buying an issue of Jeph Loeb's Batman: Hush, Neil Gaiman's 1602 came out. So did the relaunch of the Titans by Geoff Johns. Soon after, J. Michael Straczynski released Supreme Power, and Jeph Loeb returned with Superman/Batman.

Brian Bendis was on Daredevil, and Ultimate Spider-Man was in the early 40s, and really clicking. Mark Millar was killing it over on The Ultimates, and George Perez was finishing up the pencils on Avengers/JLA.

Avengers: Dissasembled was right around the corner, and Greg Rucka was relaunching Wolverine with a new number one. DC's Identity Crisis would follow in the next year or so, and people would start talking about how the industry was experiencing a rennaissance.

The first comic convention I attended came a couple years later, in Boston. DC was announcing Infinite Crisis and all of its tie-ins, Hellboy was getting the Hollywood treatment, and The Goon was being pushed by Dark Horse in the form of a big, honking hardcover collection.

In the years that followed, comics were everythwere. Marvel was promoting the coming of a King (Stephen, that is), and the names Brubaker, Fraction, and Azzarello were becoming household.

Comics were flat-out exciting, and I was right in the middle of it.

I bought books each Wednesday with the wide-eyed anticipation of a new reader. A new fan to a new universe. Everything was new to me--the comics, the (decades-old) trades, the dusty back issues, the magazines about comics, the movies. I loved it all.

After a few years of not knowing what to do next in life after injuring my throwing arm and being forced to quit playing baseball, I had something new. Something different. And, I soon came to realize, something that could one day become my profession.

Sadly, some of that excitement has since died down, and after a couple of personally dissapointing forays into the comics business itself, a part of me has soured and changed and become more cynical. Of new books, and of publisher hype, and of people within the industry.

I've been burned by comics twice. One time hurt financially (actually, it's still hurting financially, and I swear I will one day tell this story here because it is the ultimate creator-owned nightmare), and the other time hurt personally. Both left me thinking about what's next, and about a lot of other things, too.

I've been burned by the publishing industry once, as well. And, as of Saturday, it unfortunately looks like I'll be burned by it again. If that happens, that'll hurt in a way that only the Bad News You Don't Expect can hurt. But that's another story for yet another day.

Today, I want to keep talking about comics.

My stack of unread comics is high and intimidating. There are hardcovers sitting on my floor and on my shelves that are still in their cellophane, from many months ago. I've lost track of where things are at Marvel these days, and whether or not Dark Reign is over yet and if The Siege has begun. I guess that magic that used to follow me around to the comics shops not long ago just stop.

It's a terrible thing to lose magic.

To not be wide-eyed anymore. To walk into a comics shop with nothing more than the money you've saved for that particular week. It happens to all of us, though, at some point, about some thing.

Maybe once you pull the curtain back and see the Wizard, there's just no turning back. Maybe you get burned once too many times, and the whole appeal of something--the shine of a thing--dulls, and fades, and vanishes. Maybe it's the Not Being Able to Journey Off to Comics Shops Far Away and Buy Things Because They Look Like Fun Anymore part of unemployment that does it.

Or the building dread of not having a job, and not being hired for a new job. Maybe it's the hours every day that are spent applying to places you know will never get back to you. Maybe's it's the whole Seat's Taken mentality of things today.

Maybe it's the increasing awareness of that fact that, really, Marvel and DC don't seem to care about the people who buy their comics, much less the people who try to sell them. Sure, they say it's all about the fans. All about you and me and Natha--okay, well, maybe not Nathaniel. But, still.

Comics hovering around $5.00, more books shipping every week than ever before, $25 hardcovers that ship half-a-year before the cheaper trades come out. Digital distribution that is not-so-quietly pushing retailers to that big Holofoil Graveyard in the Sky.

Could be, I'm just up on my unemployed (and obviously frustrated) soapbox this morning, and venting seems like the best thing for my mental health. Could be, there are a lot of folks out there that feel the same way. Could be, I'm in a cave on an island and only Bruce Wayne can hear me screaming.

Luckily, for this past weekend at least, Batman came to my rescue.

The Long Halloween and Dark Victory brought me back, momentarily, to a time when comics were the greatest thing in the world and full of magic. A new adventure, in a new direction. Here's hoping the magic sticks with me for a while. Here's hoping there's plenty more magic left in comics. Here's hoping I have plenty more left in comics.

Here's hoping.

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