Saturday, April 23, 2011

Secret Origin: Part 3!

The comic that created a monster - Ryan Lee, comics buyer!

The first comic I ever purchased with my own money was Uncanny X-Men # 163, hitting stands in November of 1982.  I picked it up at an unknown magazine rack somewhere in New Ulm, MN on a shopping trip with my mother. (I think it was Ben Franklin)  I was ten years old at this point, and able to earn $1 in exchange for various and sundry household tasks.  So I had a dollar with me, funds enough for exactly one comic.  There could be only one choice, of course - I was grabbing the one where a teen aged girl was having her clothes torn off by an actionably Gigeresque alien creature.  Score!

There was more to it than that, of course, but not much more.  I knew a little about the X-Men, because I'd seen some from afar at my friend Jason's house.  One day we were talking about comics and Jason's brother Mark (aka "Baby Mark", aka "Starman", aka "Starface") brought out a handful of X-Men issues from the Dark Phoenix arc.

Mark spoke in assured, hushed tones about the fact that these issues represented the pinnacle of comics storytelling, and that reading them exposed you to the risk of having your face melt off.  We were allowed to view the covers from a distance, and Mark peeled back a few pages so we could catch a glimpse of the interiors.  We were instructed that we were in no way worthy of actually touching his X-Men comics.  We asked to read them any way.  Mark quickly secured them in hiding spot in his room, and they were never seen again.

It was at that point  I knew I had to get my hands on some X-Men comics.

So there I was with a dollar, and there's Kitty Pryde, resplendent in her vulnerability, and it's the X-Men.  Bam.  Done.  I had a high opinion of comics, and impossibly grand expectations about the X-Men in particular.  It would have been very easy for this book disappoint. Instead, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum ripped the top off my skull and danced on the contents with golf shoes.  That comic absolutely destroyed my mind it was so good.

Where to start?  First of all, the Brood are fantastic.  Direct rip-offs of H.R. Giger's aliens?  Yeah, I'd say there's a lawsuit there somewhere.  But still fantastic, because they just ooze evil, and they're calculating pricks so you can't underestimate them as simple violent beasts.

There are a metric ton of juicy plot points stuffed into those 22 pages.  Carol Danvers is being tortured by the Brood, and their experiments are transforming her into...something.  (Binary, as it turns out)  The Brood have implanted eggs into all of the X-Men, and they will soon transform into Brood themselves, except Wolverine.  His healing factor has beaten the egg and left him with some odd skin issues.  It's also left him with a difficult decision -- if he can kill the Brood queen the eggs go with her, but what if he can't?  Do you let your friends become one of those things or do you do the unthinkable?

Meanwhile Storm, Nightcrawler, and Kitty, (she goes by Ariel at this stage of her career) try to take back Lilandra's ship.  Kurt's outside in the vacuum of space while Kitty phases in and then tries to open an airlock from inside. Not much time for thumb-twiddling on that gambit!  Of course Kitty runs into trouble, as the cover foreshadows.  Remember when covers used to tell you something about the book's content?  Those were special days.

Ariel is ultimately able to get the airlock open, but she has to kill an obviously sentient brood soldier to do it.  It's another dilemma.  Can a hero do that kind of thing?  Yeah, Kurt's outside in the cold with no oxygen, so I gotta do what I gotta do.  But what does that say about me?

And that's the beauty of the bronze/copper age Claremont run.  It's the ultimate in superhero soap operatics.  You didn't need an event banner at the top of the book to declare for you that shit just got intense.  Every issue the stakes were high; physically, emotionally, the whole ball of yarn.  Wolverine gets transported just as he's about to get to the Brood queen, and ten seconds later the issue ends with an unknown battleship squaring up Lilandra's boat in their sights!  This is all in 22 pages, folks.

The whole thing was a shock to the system for me.  Wolverine wasn't behaving like a choir boy.  He was kind of an asshole and a wild card.  In 1982, that was counter to all expectations.  The comic was loaded with characters referencing the teachings of Prof. X, who was larger than life in the book.  The characters has meaty ethical situations to deal with, and although the word balloons are probably a little verbose and over-the-top, the philosophy is always precipitated by something visceral in the plot.  So not only was the action slick and rolling faster than I could keep up with, but I was thinking, feeling, engaging with X-Men at a deeper level than anything I was watching or reading at the time.  The X-Men were as powerful an experience as I knew.

As a demonstration of the simplicity of the times, here's the subscription checklist in the issue:

31 titles total, can you believe it?  They wanted $6.00 for 16 issues of comics, and now they want $3.99 for one issue of New Avengers.  Yeesh.  The point is that there was only one X-Men title to choose from, so you knew where to leverage your interest.  Modern sensibility says they were leaving money on the table.  I say poppycock.  The money was there because they didn't murder their consumer with the illusion of choice.  Offering 13 different versions of the product isn't 13 times better, it's one hundred times worse.  Paralysis via analysis.  The easiest choice on a menu that cluttered is to walk away.

The important thing is, see how excellent my penmanship was at age 11?  Extraordinary.

As I've been looking back at my secret origin, I think I've actually undervalued the impact of Avengers # 128.  That was a much more formative experience then I've previously given credit.  But I would still say that Uncanny X-Men # 163 is the most important comic book of my life.  No comic is more singly responsible for my life with the medium.  If that book doesn't kick nine shades of ass, it's possible my life is very different.

It would be another year before I would buy another comic - X-Men # 163 kept me burning that whole time without anything else to stoke the flame.   My problem was that I didn't have the discipline in order to save $12, or even $6, for that matter.  That represented weeks or months of my "income", and those GI Joe figures and baseball cards weren't going to buy themselves, you know?  So it was hard to pull the trigger on that subscription, although I considered putting my birthday money toward a pair of subscriptions.

If you look at the checklist above, you'll see that I was hoping to subscribe to the X-Men and also.....Daredevil.  I've always been fascinated by the "man without fear". He's next, when I probably wrap up my secret origin story.

- Ryan

1 comment:

Stephen said...

I always like seeing what someone's first X-Men comic was to see what storylines first influenced them; My first issue was Uncanny X-Men #114(an issue with a Byrne cover that suggested that most of the team had already been killed off in the previous issue), and by the time of your real X-Men exposure I think my interest was starting to wane - I just never accepted Cockrum's second run as being on par with the Byrne run and always wanted something more, whether it was more Paul Smith, Alan Davis or Barry Windsor Smith. (wasnt a Romita Jr. fan yet, either, lol)

"Offering 13 different versions of the product isn't 13 times better, it's one hundred times worse. Paralysis via analysis. The easiest choice on a menu that cluttered is to walk away."

That is so true and well put. It makes me somewhat sad and nostalgic for more affordable times from the (one time) house of ideas.