Issues: For Fans, By Fans

ISSUES is a web series developed by Scott Nap and Joey Harris in 2008 and released in early 2009. The show was chosen as part of the first class of Writers Guild of America 2.0 Initiative signings. Filmed on location in suburban New Jersey, it was cast and crewed by veteran filmmakers and new faces alike. The one bond shared though was a love for comic books.

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End of an Era

It’s never easy moving on.

I may not be the brightest mind of my generation, but I know that the statement above is absolutely true when you form a bond with a person or a place. I’m writing this blog following the departure of one of my best friends from college. He’s boldly going where none of my collegiate friends have gone before (aka Texas) and in an afternoon, I saw him prepare to take the next step in his life. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye. I guess it isn’t supposed to be.

I’ve moved ten times in my life. Picking up the pieces and sorting through one’s life can be very zen, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.  All I know is you sweat a lot, sometimes things don’t make it to the destination and there is always an adjustment period to the new surroundings.

I currently work for MSG Varsity Network, which puts me on the road quite a bit during the week. I’m fortunate enough to revisit many of the towns I’ve had connections to in my life. And earlier this week, I decided to take a little detour. I had some time to kill between appointments, so I decided to head down the coast rather than hit the parkway. Why? Why not. It was a gloriously sunny day and I felt like listening to some tunes. As I drove down Route 35, I realized I was pretty close to where I grew up in Ocean Township and decided on a whim to revisit my geek roots at my old comic book store. It was a very slight detour, and I had time…

In some ways, I wish I hadn’t. I knew from previous trips that the old movie theater I went to with my parents was now a gym, while the new movie theater was a sprawling multiplex. What I wasn’t expecting was the utter absence of my old comic book shop.

Some might say, ‘Oh Scott, it was just a little store’. But to me, that store was more than just a spot with longboxes and cutouts and baseball cards. The Shop was a treat, a reward for excellence at school, a place to seek out the new adventures of Superman, Spider-man, the Ninja Turtles and pick up some Upper Deck or Topps in the hopes of finding a Don Mattingly card.  If I didn’t have enough for both, I could always try and get some Rocketeer cards instead.

Of course, it would have been easier to just buy the set. But where's the fun in that? The chase is the best part!

I have a very vivid memory of getting my first comic. My grandmother of all people told me she wanted me to have something very special. It was the first day of summer, and she said I should take care of it. I nodded eagerly and she put John Byrne’s Superman: Man of Steel #1 in my hands. I had seen Superman on TV (I grew up watching George Reeves on Nick at Nite with Gram or catching the Christopher Reeves movies on rerun). But I had never owned a comic book before.

“He’s the greatest superhero of all. He stands up for the right things and always tries his best,” my grandmother told me. I asked her if I did the same, could we go back to the store and get the next issue. She laughed and told me there were a lot to collect, and the one in my hands was already a few years old. I told her that was okay, I’d just collect them all.

Well, I tried my anyway. See, I didn’t get the older books, but I started to visit The Store just as Superman was killed. My mind was blown. Superman? Dead? And Batman broken by some guy in a wrestling mask? How would it all work out? The comic book writers had to be up to something. They couldn’t leave my heroes hanging like that.

I spent so many sunny days after baseball games or before trips to the beach looking through baseball cards and comics, occasionally getting recommendations from The Shop, sometimes from Gram. And then one day I moved and went to another dimension known as North Carolina, to a place where the nearest Little League was 45 minutes away and comic shops were as abundant as plutonium. It took years for me to find out exactly what happened after Superman returned from the dead or how Batman suddenly regained the ability to walk. I mean, we’re talking college.

So imagine my horror when I pulled into the old shopping center where I had spent so many fun days, only to found that my old haunt was nowhere to be found. A few people passed by and one person noticed my confusion. I asked what happened to the old comic book store and he told me it had moved away and might have closed down. ‘Bad economy’, the man said with a shake of his head before walking away.

I regained my love of comics in college. Somehow, my friends and I got lost trying to find a burger joint and ended up on Route 1. While we tried to get directions, I noticed a store that looked kind of like my Old Shop. This was Comic Relief. We went inside, and it was like I was 8 again. There were the old familiar heroes. I picked up the book that would get me back into collecting again- Kurt Busiek’s Superman: Secret Identity #1. I had just gotten into Smallville, and seeing this mature take on a boy realizing he has powers appealed to me somehow. It wasn’t goofy. It wasn’t kiddie fare. I could relate to the story. Hell, I’d eventually brave a snowstorm on my birthday to get the next issue, I liked it that much. While my friends bought their copies of Preacher and Sandman and Ex Machina, I happily thumbed through the Superman title while talking to the store’s owner.

In my head, Geoff John's orchestrated my bookie Rebirth, knowing I'd happily spend an exorbitant amount on comic books in the future.

A year later, that Owner, Ed, gave me a job working there. Years later, after graduating college, I’d return and film Issues there. It felt like home in some ways, but I never forgot The Old Shop. I’d get back there eventually. Eventually.

Then came the moment of seeing the ‘first love’, that first store, completely gone. The cutouts of Princess Leia and Spock were long gone. The Spidey statue had swung into memory along with the Wolverine window decal. No more chances to go diving through the aisles of back issue bins in the hopes of wrangling a pearl-like treasure. Nope.

It was as though it never existed, wiped clean from the surrounding shopping center. Even if the store moved, I’d be afraid to see what it looked like. It wouldn’t be the same.

I love comic books. I love superheroes. I love that they can represent the best and worst in all of us. I love the fact that they can provide examples for kids to learn from or examples of what not to do. I love the fact that adults would do well to strive to be more like some of these icons. I love that even now almost 20 years later, I’m learning from them by understanding the craft of the writing and scripting. And I love the fact that when I reflect back on my childhood, I can quickly point out the places that meant the most to me: my old school, my best friend’s house, the baseball field, the movie theater, my grandparent’s old home…and that musty, dusty cave of wonders.

So to those of you who are going out to your favorite store for Free Comic Book Day, I say to you this: enjoy your time there. Take your kid, invite a friend, bring along someone special or just soak up the atmosphere yourself. Take a moment and remember who got you your first issue. What was it? Were you at a particular store? Look through the archives if your store has them and find the books from when you grew up and think back on when these collections were as precious as jewels.

I wish you all an adventure-packed and happy Free Comic Book Day, my fellow bookies.



Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

If you’re watching our show then you are a comic book fan. And if you’re a comic book fan, you are no doubt aware of a little film coming out this weekend called Kick-Ass. Indeed, even those among our loyal readers plotting world domination from their secret lairs far beneath the earth have felt the reverberations of the thundering hype machine preceding the film’s release. Advance screenings have spawned reviews assuring us the film is a game changing, action packed satiric look at the super hero genre—Spider-Man meets Superbad with the promise of enough profit to have plans for a sequel both on screen and in print well underway. Before all the hype began, my only exposure to Kick-Ass was at my local comic shop, where I flipped through a few pages because John Romita Jr. was the artist and then put it back down. Once news that Kick-Ass was going to be the best movie ever broke, I did what any good slightly behind the curve comic fan would do and borrowed the TPB from a friend to read before I went to see how badly Hollywood screwed it up.

I finished the book in one quick go. Upon reaching the end, I found myself wondering what exactly all the fuss was about. The plot was almost non-existent, the characters thinly defined, and the gratuitousness of the language and violence more distracting than dramatic. (Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: I’m not one of those prudes who is against violence in comics. I just get bored when the only apparent reason for seeing a man’s face blown off is the writer wanting to show me he can.) Even more off putting was the tone of the piece itself. It operates with a level of smugness that goes beyond mere satire. Kick -Ass, at least in its comic book form, is not so much a commentary on the genre as an assault. It’s the super hero comic for people who hate super heroes.

The title character’s main purpose seems to be as an object of ridicule. By day, he is Dave Lizewski, a high school nerd who spends all his time arguing with his friends about the merits of space cloud Galactus and can only get near the girl of his dreams by pretending to be her not so sassy gay friend. Dave worships at the alter of the classic super heroes such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four to escape from the pathetic grind that is his every day life. His choice to become the world’s first real super hero is driven by his need to become something more than he is. By accepting the mantle of a super hero, Dave expects to instantly become one of the unstoppable beings he reads about every day.

Instead, Dave remains a fool. During his first attempt to fight crime, he is beaten, stabbed, and run over by a car, landing him in the hospital, where a metal plate in his head grants him the “super power” of …being able to take even more brutal beatings in the future. As Kick Ass, Dave is never in his element. He is always on the wrong side of a fist, bottle, or electrode to the balls. Even when he teams up with the prepubescent assassin, Hit Girl and cuts a bloody swath through a warehouse full of thugs, he survives through sheer luck and the protection of his sword swinging side-kick.

The fate of a hero in Kick-Ass

And what is Dave’s reward? Nothing. The girl he’s sweet on dumps him the moment he admits his love. Hit Girl, the only person who understands him, goes off to try and be a normal kid instead of a killer, and in the last panel the world’s first super villain plots his revenge. In Kick Ass, the path of the hero is one walked only by those insecure enough to need external validation and ultimately too weak to survive in the real world. To a film critic who is just being exposed to the world of graphic novels, this approach may seem hip and insightful. To those who know their comics, however, the concept of super heroes draping themselves in costumes to hide their own psychoses is old hat. Alan Moore was busy deconstructing the super hero mythos with Watchmen when I was in diapers. In this day and age, pointing out a costumed sixteen year old would get his ass kicked or portraying Superman as a supremely naïve deity is as unexpected as someone claiming God is dead in a freshman philosophy course. (But Nietzsche jokes are, like, totally awesome.)

Twenty-four years ago, this stuff blew your mind.

Yet during the last decade we have seen an increasing infatuation in portraying our favorite heroes as either delusional demigods or simply damaged goods wrapped in a spandex package and tied with a utility belt. In the DC Universe, we’ve seen the JLA wipe Batman’s mind to cover up a conspiracy, Wonder Woman kill a man in cold blood, and, of course, The God Damn Batman. In the Marvel line, Hank Pym abused prescription drugs and his wife (in Millar’s own The Ultimates), Tony Stark turned into a neo conservative nut job (Millar’s Civil War), Captain America got assassinated (ditto), and Spider-Man sold his soul to the devil in order to go back to the carefree days of being unmarried and living with his aunt. Evil has also done pretty well for itself, with Lex Luthor and Norman Osborn both essentially taking over the country at one point or another The heroes of the 21st century aren’t the ones your daddy knew; they are broken, battered, and bruised.

The argument has been made that this nihilistic niche of comics actually represents a leap forward for the art form. No longer are creators tethered to flawless characters whose victory is assured no matter how impossible the odds. The narrative devices that propelled the Golden Age have long since tarnished. Only by embracing shades of gray can comic books continue to progress. It’s not a contention without merit. Every writer on the planet has had the mantra “there is no drama without conflict” pounded into their head for good reason. One need only look at Golden and Silver Age books to see even the classic tales sometimes suffer from a lack of sophistication. Comic books wouldn’t have survived as long as they have if they hadn’t been willing to adapt, and the art form is surely stronger when it is allowed to tackle complex adult issues. There is, however, a large caveat: Cynicism alone does not equal complexity. A world populated solely by grumpy badasses agonizing over their psychological scars is just as boring as one filled with shiny golden gods dropping cheesy one-liners. Good drama can’t exist in either realm, so it’s pointless for writers to exchange one extreme for another in the name of narrative complexity.

We can't put good dialogue here! This is bat country!

Perhaps it’s the pretentious film student in me, but what I find fascinating about this whole phenomenon is the matter of choice. Even bad art doesn’t simply pop out of thin air. There is a conscious choice behind every word written and line drawn. So why, then, has the industry decided to embrace this particular cliché at this particular time? For my money, it’s because comic book readers and society as a whole have a question of their own to ask: Does the world really need super heroes? More to the point, can the world afford to have them? Can they be trusted? The answer Millar and his contemporaries give us is “no.” The second to last page of another highly rated Millar book, Wanted, gives an excellent encapsulation of the mentality driving today’s comics.
(Click to enlarge.)

“You’re killing yourself working twelve-hour days, getting fat on cheap take out food, and your girlfriend is almost certainly fucking other guys. Just because you’ve got a plasma screen TV and a big DVD collection doesn’t mean you’re a free man, motherfucker. Even this comic was just a fifteen minute respite from how hard we’re working for you. You used to think the world was always like this, didn’t you? The wars, the famine, the terrorism, and the rigged elections. But now you know better, right? Now you know what happened to the super heroes and you know the funny thing? You know what makes me laugh now that I’m on the other side? You’re just going to close this book and buy something else to fill the big empty void we’ve created in your life.”

Wanted, whose protagonist is a protégée super villain in a world where super heroes have been definitively defeated, allows Millar to state plainly that which lies at least slightly beneath the surface in Kick-Ass. The common citizens of Wanted blindly put their faith in heroes because placing the burdens of society on the broad shoulders of supermen was easier than addressing them. Of course as fallible (super) human beings, the heroes were busier basking in the adoration Dave Lizewski sought throughout Kick-Ass to notice the mobilization of the super villains. With his breaking of the fourth wall, Millar makes no bones about this being an allegory for the modern comic book reader/society. We the readers embrace the super hero mythology because it’s what we want to believe. In a world of continual chaos, we cling to the idea that somehow, somewhere, there are perfect beings who will swoop in to save us from our own destruction. Every time we pick up a comic book, we do so to escape. We, like the heroes we worship, are fundamentally too weak to accept the fact that evil not only exists but often wins. In Millar’s world, a super hero serves only to convince one to passively relinquish control of their life in pursuit of a lie.

Millar’s anti authoritarian theories of heroism echo those we’ve seen before, as does the historical context from which they spawn. In the 1970’s amidst the Vietnam war, unemployment, and recession, gritty anti-heroes such as Wolverine and The Punisher made their debuts. In the 80’s Alan Moore’s greatest works, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, came as a direct allegorical response to the rule of Margaret Thatcher. (The 90’s brought us the Clone Saga. If you can figure out the social context for that one, you’re a better bookie than I.) Now, in the 21st century, America finds itself facing two wars that have gone on for the better part of a decade, a global economy in crisis, and the ever-looming threat of terrorism. Is it any wonder that while people hurl stones at the windows of their congressmen Mark Millar and his contemporaries feel the need to question the greatest symbols of power in their medium? Probably not. But just because the questions Millar addresses have been raised before does not mean his conclusions are correct.

Millar’s work hinges on the either-or view of super heroes we discarded earlier. If the survival of super heroes rested solely on sanitized portrayals, they would have gone extinct long ago. The infuriatingly perfect beings Millar and others rally against started going out of style forty years ago, yet super heroes themselves remain. Why? Because they are still needed, not to blind us from the truth, nor to be torn down in an attempt to make ourselves feel superior. We need heroes because they are a mirror of who we are and a window to who we can be. Despite the extraordinary circumstances they face, when push comes to shove, the story of super heroes is also our own.

A bygone era.

I can think of no greater example to illustrate than the events of one of my favorite comics, Amazing Spider-Man #33. The issue is the end of a three-part arc wherein after defeating the minions of Dr. Octopus, Spidey finds himself trapped beneath thousands of pounds of machinery in a rapidly flooding tunnel. Mere feet away lies a container of the serum that could cure his dying Aunt May. Spider-Man tries to push the machinery off himself, but the weight is too great, and he slumps in defeat. As the water grows higher, Spider-Man considers the consequences of his failure. He’s doomed his beloved Aunt just as he failed to prevent the death of his Uncle Ben. The thought is too much to bear. For the sake of everyone he loved and loves Spider-Man decides to give it a final shot, “No matter what the odds—no matter what the cost!” With every ounce of strength in his body, Spider-Man begins to lift.

Steve Ditko’s art hits with all the power of a motion picture. The reader hears the creaking of metal as Spider-Man pushes the machinery upward; the muffled groan that escapes from his damp mask as a torrential downpour of water rushes over his body. The tension he feels in every muscle of his body is now present in the hand of the reader, who breathlessly turns the page to find…

Everything compelling about the modern super hero lies within these panels. Peter Parker is not a model of perfection. He lives each day of his life blaming himself for the moment where his human frailty cost the life of someone he loved. A super hero is not someone who never feels fear or succumbs to doubt, nor do we as an audience expect one to be. If Spider-Man had simply shrugged off tons of steel in the manner of the 40’s Superman, his triumph would be hollow. But when the man beneath the brightly colored costume of a hero faces the same fears as his audience and finds the strength within himself to fight though the battle seems lost, the moment becomes transcendent. Scenes such as these do not encourage readers to become complacent in their lives as Millar would suggest. On the contrary, they inspire the common man to tear themselves away from their plasma TVs and DVD collections to battle the challenges they face within their own lives. For while none of us are stronger than a locomotive or faster than a speeding bullet, we, like the heroes in our comic books, have the power to choose. Instead of the sheep Wanted and Kick-Ass portray, we are mighty.

The world is not all sunshine and rainbows, and there is no reason for comic books to deny this. There will always be the need for stories that force us come face to face with the darker aspects of human nature so we may work to overcome them. But by the same token, dispensing with the idea of heroism in our mythology is detrimental. Now more then ever, as we stare into the abyss and confront ourselves, we need heroes who remind us to look up in the sky no matter what the odds—no matter what the cost. ‘Nuff said.

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Bookmark it, Bookies!: Goblins

Welcome back for another installment of Bookmark it, Bookies! Each column focuses on a digital comic that I enjoy. This week we’ll be looking at the comic Goblins: Life Through Their Eyes which is written and drawn by Tarol Hunt (a.k.a. Thunt) with his wife, Danielle, assisting on colors.

As the name implies, the comic centers around a group of Dungeons & Dragons style Goblins. Tired of having their village destroyed by low-level adventurers, they decide to fight back. (more…)

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Web Series Watch: Mr. Deity

Well, unlike the guys here, you may have figured out that I don’t spend the majority of my time reading comics.  (I do have a soft spot for Tiny Titans though.  Adorable.  *As I glance at my Terra sketch from Mr. Balthazar during NYCC*)

I do spent a good deal of my time watching other web shows and talking to the people involved.  And I want to show off some of the shows that I and other members of the cast and crew love so you can get a taste of what we watch when we’re sick of going through our footage.  To kick off the Web Series Watch column, I’d like to take a look at one of my favorite programs, a show called Mr. Deity. (more…)

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Bookmark it, Bookies!: Box 13

Today I’d like to introduce a new column on the blog. Issues is a show about life in a comic shop and we love to talk about our paper-based pulls. However, just as our show is evidence of episodic entertainment’s migration to the internet, there are many great comics that exist primarily, if not solely, online. Occasionally, I’d like to highlight some of my favorites.

The first comic I want to introduce you to is Box 13 (written by David Gallaher, art by Steve Ellis). The story centers around spy novelist turned investigative author Dan Holiday. During the book signing following his latest presentation on secret government research experiments, he opens a numbered box left for him by entities unseen. Without spoiling too much, Dan soon finds himself on the run in an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of the boxes that seem to turn up wherever he goes. Each opened box may bring him closer to the truth, but at the risk of losing his sanity, if not his life. Gallaher knows how to use each issue’s short length to push the plot forward and hook the reader with twists, turns, intrigue, imminent danger, and a general wonder of what will come next for Dan and Olivia, the beautiful admiring fan who’s found herself along for the ride. (more…)

Issues © 2008-2010 Scott Napolitano