An (Un)Origin(al) StoryA column article, Z.E.I.T.G.E.I.S.T. by: Danny Djeljosevic
Danny Djeljosevic doesn't stop thinking about comics. All comics: crackling cosmic punches, subdued glances from art-school girls, high-concept pop, intricate European breasts, Japanese speedlined inner monologue, cartoon teenagers eating hamburgers. He loves them all.
He writes them. He draws them. He writes about them. He talks about them.
This is what his brain sounds like.
Everyone has a "getting into comics" story. Most of the ones you hear involve people discovering comics as a youth and never putting them down no matter how sad and isolating their obsession gets. In that respect, mine isn't any different, but some of the details are worth writing about for a thousand words or so. And I can't afford a shrink.
I don't know how I found out what a comic book is. I have a vague memory of studying the ending credits to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and asking one of my sisters to read and decipher a piece of arcane text that explained just what twisted source material the Turtles spawned from, but that could just be something that I put together from other unrelated memories. Either way, somehow I found out that there were books that told stories of my favorite characters with words and pictures.
This next part is 100% true, even though it makes me sound insane.
I walked into the living room, 7 years old with the confidence of an office worker bee who knows he deserves that raise he's about to ask for. And he's just going to put that request out there and see if it flies. He earned it, goddammit. I earned it.
"I want to start reading comics."
It was seriously that easy, and I was seriously that decisive about it. This was something I wanted, and I sternly and professionally informed my parents of my intentions. It's like I knew what was in store for me and decided to take a desperate, lonely path instead of going outside and having friends.
It was also easy for me to get my pudding-encrusted fingers on some comics. Y'see, in the early 1990s there were still spinner racks out there in the world (Borders used to have 'em, but alas...). My dad once bought me Fantastic Four Annual #25 at a 7-11. As such, I could get my fix at the local Walgreens, so that's where I got my first real comic books. I also had one of those Random House Ninja Turtles comics that came with a cassette tape that had voice actors performing the dialogue on the page. I have nothing to say about that one except that I love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Appropriately (and boringly), my first comics -- bought at the same time in May 1992 -- were Batman and Spider-Man. Which is a good start for a kid. Most kids of any age can recognize Batman and Spider-Man. They've got movies and cartoons and weird live-action TV shows made about them since at least the '60s. Shit permeates, y'know?
Batman #478 has a terrifying photo cover, like a Dave McKean piece slowly coming to life to kill you in the middle of the night. The artist's name is Tom Taggart, and he did a lot of weirdo Vertigo covers in the '90s, as Vertigo was wont to do. back then Even though the subject is a Etrigan-esque (read: "yellow") gargoyle, you still have Batman in the upper left-hand corner and a big BATMAN emblazoned across the top of the cover, which is probably the main reason I chose it. Certainly not the gargoyle.
The comic itself, by 2000 AD talent John Wagner and Cam Kennedy, is an odd starting point for any 7-year-old -- Part 2 of "A Gotham Tale," a chamber piece about Batman, a woman and Max Schrek/The Tall Man from Phantasm trapped in a bank vault and running out of air. There's some to-do about a creature called The Gargoyle, which looks like Harry Potter's house elf Dobby after a bout with hepatitis. In the end, the whole scenario is an elaborate ruse to get the scary old man to reveal that he is, in fact, The Gargoyle! Shocking!
As you might expect, Batman effortlessly owns the room:
But this Darkwing Duck-esque moment also happens, which is the best thing I've seen in any Batman comic that Chris Sims hasn't yet written about:
I wish I could pull a Matt Fraction and figure out what effect, if any, this had on me. Nothing, as far as I can tell. My love for girls who look like boys? My love for Kaneda jackets?
No, there's nothing particularly effective about the comic. It's too talky, too stagey to really sell the value of comics to anyone of any age. Just lots of word balloons and caption boxes. If this were the only comic book I bought, I'd probably end up some jerkass MFA grad student hacking out unreadable manuscripts somewhere in Montana.
Come to think of it, movies and animated series aside, I didn't have a whole lot of love for Batman as a kid. Part of it was that childhood idea of choosing sides. In the ensuing years, I preferred Marvel to DC, Sega to Nintendo, Pepsi to Coke. As you grow up, tastes change (hopefully) and you begin to realize there's nothing stopping you from liking two things that are similar. They may be competing, but you can play for both teams.
Wait, before you make a gay joke --
I know why I was a Marvel kid. Batman #478 was an unconvincing story for both the character and the medium, but thank god for Spectacular Spider-Man #188 by J.M. DeMatteis and Sal Buscema, which is still a fucking awesome comic today.
The cover is pretty straightforward, but a perfect representation of what lies in store for the reader -- Spider-Man fights the Vulture both outside and inside. That's just what a 7-year-old needs to see to want to read comics.
Not only that! This is the last of a three-part storyline! It's not only perfectly easy to understand, but amazingly affecting. DeMatteis and Sal elegantly craft a fight comic with some surprising depth. The Vulture is dying of cancer, so he's decided to fight Spider-Man but good one last time before he goes to the big aviary in the sky. That could be the end of it, but DeMatteis does some interesting things with his script. For one thing, the Vulture narrates, giving the geriatric villain more than just evil intent. It really sells him as a tragic loser, desperate to do one awesome thing with his last days. We also learn that Spider-Man is the kind of guy who'd save the villain on fire rather than let him go out in a literal blaze of glory. Stand-up dude.
Then there's some great stuff with Aunt May, who says some seriously mean things to a dying man:
But she's a sweet old lady, so she visits him in prison to apologize.
At that age, none of the dramatic stuff had much effect on me, though, except that the Aunt May/Vulture relationship always made me think they'd be a better couple than that time Doctor Octopus tried to marry her just to fuck with Peter Parker (is that what that story's about?). To my 7-year-old brain, Spectacular Spider-Man #188 was an awesome fight comic between Spidey and the Vulture, expertly rendered by Buscema. Dude is seriously a storytelling beast.
It's weird that both Batman #478 and Spectacular Spider-Man #188 were concluding chapters. There's always talk of how accessible comics should be and how flimsy, written-for-the-trade comics of the 2000s don't do anyone any good. You probably can't get a whole lot of value out of Part 8 of a nine-part X-Men story, but these two comics were accessible (one more than the other, for a few different reasons), with a lot of meat for a reader who just picked the thing up without a whole lot of knowledge.
But that final chapter coincidence is doubly relevant. The other day my friend (and Comics Bulletin columns editor) Andrew Tan was telling me how little kids in his writing classes write depending on what they're into. For example, the kids who are in to Lord of the Rings really work to develop their story-worlds, while the Call of Duty fans write without regard for humanity or basic story logic. In comics, you can read a Grant Morrison superhero comic and see Silver Age DC Comics practices hard at work. What you experience as a kid seriously teaches your brain how to tell a story.
The first relatively long-form comic I ever wrote -- a four-issue miniseries -- suffered through a dreadful first draft outline where I was totally bored with the lifeless plot I was putting together like IKEA furniture. I was working with an artist on this one -- and a really good one! -- so it was likely to come to fruition. One of the first of my projects to potentially become an actual thing that exists in the world outside my hard drive and the friends I forced it upon. Y'know what I did to my story to make it something that I could actually engage and identify with?
I scrapped the whole thing, save one element: I made the climax of the original story the opening chapter of the new one.
Thanks, comics I read as a kid. You made me into Quentin Fucking Tarantino.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery.