Comics were not my “big thing” as a kid – that was reserved for sci-fi and fantasy novels and, from about 10, Dungeons and Dragons. I was hooked on authors like Andre Norton, John Christopher and Anne McCaffrey. I liked comics but compared to the kind of stories offered in the novels I was reading Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck just weren’t cutting it.
There were two exception however; when I was about nine years old I somehow ended up with an early edition of a Star-Lord comic (Marvel Premiere #61 – Planet Story to be precise) which showed me something in a comic I’d not really seen before. The story featured Star-Lord encountering a symbiotic alien planet that would suck the energy from its “victims” but unknown to them was actually giving more than it took, and indeed essential for the eco-system of the entire planet. It had been abandoned by its indigenous population and, having attempted and failed to feed from Star-Lord, wished to die but Star-Lord, unable to speak to the planet, elected to instead spare it, leaving it alone and in pain.
The bleak, complex story made a big impression on me and impressed upon me the potential of comics as a story telling medium. Using a combination of art and written word it was closer to the experience of a movie or TV yet allowed a depth of thought that usually only goes with a book. I must have re-read it a few hundred times and the story still pops into my head occasionally till this day.
The other exception was earlier, I’m going to guess when I was 7-8 years old, and is one of my earliest memories of reading comics. I would go into my primary school library at lunchtimes and, when not reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, dig out issues of this old science magazine that had a sci-fi comic on the back, or inside back, page (I’ve tried and failed to identify what this magazine was – if anyone out there knows please drop me a line!).
[RH Edit - A very clever and wise friend dropped me a line to let me know that the magazine was Look and Learn and the comic on the back page was The Trigan Empire. Which is still available to buy, I think I feel a nostalgia purchase coming on]
I was deeply disappointed that they didn’t have all the issues so I just re-read what they had over and over – I suspect the story wasn’t anything special but as far as I can recall it was the first time I encountered a comic that wasn’t expressly written for under 10's and I was pretty much blown away. Still one thing bothered me; I remember thinking “What a weird mix of technology, why are they running around with swords when they have ray guns?” My tendency to over analyse stuff started very early in life!
Apart from those two exceptions my interest in comics was light until when I was about 15 and I stumbled onto 2000AD and immediately became a collector. The weekly issues were good, though ultimately the declined in quality in my estimation and I stopped buying them about 3 years later, but it was the older “monthlies” that were the real prize. There were some great sci-fi and fantasy stories being told in these older collected editions, the same kind of story that had wowed me with Star-Lord many years earlier.
The best of these was Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones. I was initially deeply unimpressed with this comic when I first got it, it didn’t feature any of my favourite characters (Nemesis, Slaine, ABC Warriors, Dredd etc.), there was no shooting or any violence to speak of and there was these unemployed women going shopping? After reading the first ten or so pages I put it down in disgust and it sat in a cupboard for about 6 months before, in a fit of boredom, I picked it back up and read it through. It remains my all-time favourite comic, pretty close to being my all-time favourite work of fiction.
To be fair I guess I still see it through the eyes of my sixteen year old self but still, if you haven’t read it and you’re an Alan Moore fan or just like more thoughtful comics then you should get yourself a copy. With its themes of escape from an apparently pointless existence, and whether that’s even possible, the desire to search for identity and those we leave behind in that effort, it certainly resonated with me then and still does to this day.
At some point the “monthlies” caught up with the “weeklies” I already owned and I stopped collecting 2000AD but not long after I transferred to Auckland Polytechnic where I was studying business computing and began frequenting the comic book stores (at that point in time there weren’t any comic books stores outside the city center that I was aware of). I picked up issue 46 of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and fell in love all over again. I started collecting this and other titles that grabbed me from this point until 97’ when I would leave the country and stop individual comic issues entirely.
In the peak of my comic collecting, I’m going to say 1995 – it was certainly at one of the NZ Nat Sci-Fi conventions and there was one in ‘95 I certainly attended, I gave a talk with a friend on comics; it was a comics 101 sort of a thing where we went through the various main types of comics, anthropomorphic (now more commonly referred to as a “furry" - a term I'd not yet heard back then), the slice of life, Manga, super heroes etc. Then we talked about the publishers and I think we ragged a bit on the mainstream publishers and their over dependence on what were now clichéd storylines and anatomically improbable women.
We also talked about the growing number of independent comic writers; being broadly described as creators who own the creative rights to their own work and usually, though not always, self-publish. Independents were a bit of a hot topic at the time. Cerebus creator Dave Sim was doing his “Spirits of Independence” tour and openly criticising comic companies who had cashed in on the ideas of staff, established franchises and were now putting out some very mediocre comics while continuing to rake in the dough. He certainly wasn’t alone in this opinion.
For the most part the independently published comics were the comics I was collecting, many of the authors/titles showcased in the “Spirits of Independence” tour were titles I collected, and we (my friend and I) were the most excited about. The stories were richer and deeper, characters were well developed and just, well, better (in our humble opinions).
The reason for this, one I still believe today, we suggested in our talk was that independent comics were telling stories that they actually wanted to tell. They were passionate and excited about what they were doing, they had a vision for their story and they were delivering it in their own words. They could take creative risks and couldn’t be censored. Their comics storylines weren’t dictated to the comic’s writers and artists by a marketing team - which we wrong or rightly believed to be true of the “big two” comic companies at the time.
However by the beginning of ’97 I’d given up buying individual issues of print comics for a bunch of reasons; I was moving to England later in the year, I read very fast and reading an individual issue in a few minutes once a month had become a very dissatisfying experience (also a lousy return on investment) so I decided I would just buy collected books only from that point forward. But once I stopped visiting the stores (I never restarted the habit in the UK) the connection with print comics just dropped off and mostly I never got around to buying the collected editions I intended to get; though I still plan to do so someday.
Into the vacuum of collecting and reading print comics came web-comics; for all the reasons why web-comics are great today. You don’t have to “invest” in a web-comic (e.g. buying early issues only to find actually the story wasn’t really what you were looking for), they're easily accessible and you have instant access to the entire back catalogue.
And most importantly is that there are some great stories being told out there in web-comics. In much the same way I loved the independent comic scene of the 90’s I love what’s happening out there right now in web-comics. The titles being produced online, I believe, are the product of passion, authors giving up crazy amounts of their own personal time to create something because they love comics and they have this story that they're just dying to tell.
Web-comics are huge right now, there are an almost inconceivably large number them being produced in every imaginable style and genre. With increased readership, crowd funded publishing and the usual donation and merchandising some web-comic authors (those who didn’t already work in the comic book industry) are realising there dream of being able to go full time on their creations. I doubt anyone is getting rich doing it but if you can do what you love and make a living out of it; well to me that’s down right inspirational.
Of course web-comics are not without their drawbacks, I’ve mostly talked the upside of web comics, to be something resembling balanced I should probably mention some of the downsides – and there can be some pretty big ones.
Speed of publishing can be a bit of issue, some web-comics publish only one page a week. That’s like a comic that only publishes an issue once every 6 months. It’s unavoidable where you have people who are essentially doing this in their spare time but it does make reading web comics often an exercise in extreme patience. I personally find it very dissatisfying to read a comic one page at a time so I wait a year or two before returning to a title so I can read a satisfying chunk of material in one go.
Quality is another potential problem, there are truly vast numbers of web comics but the reality is a lot of the are very much amateur efforts and some just aren’t very good. Now I read a lot of comics that fall into this category, some are so bad, or just not for me, that I abandon them after a while but generally I stick with them. I really enjoy seeing someone improve as an artist and as a story teller but, for the most part, I probably won’t be reviewing many comics in this category - unless they've developed into something I think is worth sharing.
I’ve saved the worst for last – abandonment, and sadly this happens pretty regularly. The author announces they are taking a short break, they’re sorry the break has been longer than expected but they’ll be back on it real soon, and then they never post again until one day your clicking through your old links and view the sad face of a 404. This happens irrespective of quality or even success sometimes. Before I started writing reviews I went back to locate some older comics that I had loved and wanted to review but sadly many of them just don’t seem to exist any more.
So why am I writing about web-comics? Well I too have a passion and a dream, I want to be a writer. And writing, like all things, requires practise and the discipline of doing that practise. And I really need to practise! They say you should write what you know and what you love; so that for me is web-comics.
Weekly reviews (I plan to issue a new review every Friday, plus articles on an ad-hoc basis) will give me both a deadline and a topic to write about and hopefully I can put some people onto some comics they will love and maybe create some interesting articles myself.
Let’s give it a shot!
R J Hogan.