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Monday, October 23, 2006


Lightning (Lad) Strikes

I'm kind of an on-again, off-again (right now I'm on) comics reader over a really long period from about 5 to 35. It's hardly novel to point out that I'm typical - there were a lot of 5 year olds reading comics when I was 5, and now all the readers seem to be 35 and up. Once in a while I wonder where the new readers will come from, and what will draw them to comics. I'll admit that I hope my daughter likes comics, because it would be fun to share them with her, but I know that it's pretty statistically unlikely that she'll be interested.

This weekend I went to a really great store in San Diego because a good friend who is a relatively new comics reader was looking to put a dent in her want list of back issues. We had perused the store's booth at comicon and she knew they specialized in old comics. Maybe this happens all over the country all the time - a woman, seemingly normal, suddenly decides that she's interested in collecting obscure comic books from the 1960's - but I think it's pretty unusual. The funny part is that her interest is almost entirely due to something completely coincidental: her cat has the same name as Supergirl's. Seriously.

Due to this extremely minor fact, my friend was willing to go to comicon with me and rope her husband in too (Cole didn't make it out to SD this year, and I thought it would be depressing to go alone so I was grateful and willing to risk boring them), buy a copy of Legion of Super Heroes Archives Vol. 1, and search around on the web for a list of appearances of the Legion of Super Pets. I keep waiting for her to say, "wait a minute, why am I buying these comics - they're retarded!"

Instead, her interest grows. After we went to the comics store I loaned her and her husband a pile of comics that I thought they might like along with Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics". By the next day they had read through the whole pile and she was on to the McCloud. So far, however, I haven't been able to come up with anything she likes as much as the Legion of Super Heroes stories from the 60's. I tried Madman, because I thought the tone and the clean layouts would be somewhat similar, but I got a somewhat tepid response. The only thing that really got a good response was a Silver Age Flash story with Gorilla Grodd. Maybe it was his special radiation that made her love him.

As we drove home from the store I started thinking about how frustrating it must be for whoever is out there trying to market comics to new readers. My friend's story is completely useless as a roadmap for how to get new interest in the medium. Goofy coincidences are not a strategy.

I'm left with a couple of questions:
What would you suggest for modern comics for a person who loves 60's LSH stories?
Have you ever seen anyone else become interested in comics after about 10 years old?

I'd be curious what you have to say.

Tough call. The Legion from that era really IS as close to unique in superhero comics as you're going to find. No one has ever really managed to duplicate that sort of 'Kirby kid gang with super powers in a hopelessly innocent, idealistic future' deal they had, and nowadays, nobody would even dream of doing it.

Following the Legion from Silver Age to Modern Age is like watching a microcosm of everything that went wrong, in comics in general, and with the DC Universe in specific, over the course of that transition. As with Superman himself, nobody really seems to have hit on a good way to adapt the goofy, childlike sweetness of the Legion's original concept to the grim n' gritty, 'no taboos allowed', everybody's-an-asshole-and-that's-how-we-like-it atmosphere that is the Modern Age. It's why the Legion keeps being rebooted every couple years, and why the reboots will never take. The Legion, like Superman, simply isn't a Modern Age concept...

...and I mention that, not simply to bitch about the Modern Age (which, I know, I'm always doing) but to reiterate that you're not going to have much luck finding anything Legion-esque in contemporary comics for your friend.

But by all means, see if you can find some of the 70s Bates-Cockrum stuff for her. Those stories were frickin' fabulous.

And having said all that, for some reason, I'm thinking perhaps your friend might enjoy some Baron-Rude NEXUS. I don't know why. But, you know, maybe. Or, I just finished the first MAGE collection. Maybe she'd like that. And you can never go far wrong introducing a female human who is just starting to be interested in comics, to Gaiman's SANDMAN. Start with that cats story.
I wouldn't neccesarily recommend Sandman unless she also happens to have a dog named Morpheus. Just because your friend has discovered that she likes fun, sublimely stupid old comics doesn't mean she will or should like "good" new comics. It's like expecting someone who's got a quasi-ironic obsession with Green Acres to love The Sopranos.

As Highlander says, there is something unique about early Legion--hence its ability to generate its own highly active section of fandom. Aquaman, as far as I know, never inspired legions of fans to start up "Atlantis Outpost" fanzines.

Still, there a lot of old comics that capture some of the same unselfconscious goofiness as LSH. All of the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman titles from the the same era are just as loopy. Anything written by Bob Haney will probably also work--his Brave and the Bold stories are consistently demented, and his Teen Titans stories are charming precisely because he's so clueless about teen culture. The Aquaman Archives has beautifully cartoony Ramona Fradon art and wonderfully contrived stories, usually featuring bizarre uses of sea creatures under Aquaman's mental control. Maybe try more early Barry Allen Flash.

I would suggest giving her some early Silver Age Marvel, particularly Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, but if you're looking for the dumb, strange fun, Marvel really didn't deliver that until the 1970s with C-List books like Godzilla, Luke Cage, and Devil Dinosaur. Likewise, Kirby's Kamandi for DC could catch her interest.

As far as modern comics, James Kochalka's Superfuckers understands the central appeal of the Legion, wrapping a peculiar innocence in layers of amusing profanity. Marvel's Nextwave and DC's All-New Atom are reported to be old-school over-the-top fun, and I'm enjoying Agents of Atlas, a cheerfully hyper mini-series about Marvel's obscure 1950s heroes.

For a celebration of all that's best and silliest about the Silver Age, I point you to the soon-ending Dial B for Blog (link at left). Many, if not all issues of this blog magazine highlight the goofiest corners of old superhero comics. It's bound to give you some ideas.
Maybe it is very rare for a "seemingly normal" adult female (I think that's a compliment?) to get into comics due to a strange coincidence, but the strange coincidence isn't what made me like them, it's what made me give them a chance. I like them because they are zany, fun, imaginative, colorful, whimsical - and I can feel them opening up my creative, playful side. The older ones somehow seem more real to me, and I like how they are a slice of history. I bet a lot more people would like them if they would just give them a chance. Maybe they should hand them out in the waiting room at the DMV. They could use a little whimsy in there.
Oh, and thanks for all the recommendations!
Slight tweak: Nothing about anyone's interest in Silver Age Legion, especially the John Fortis era or thereabouts, would cause me to recommend SANDMAN. My recommendation was simply based on the fact that in my life I've had the pleasure of introducing about half a dozen girl geeks who were not COMICS geeks (they were RPGeeks) to comics, and all of them, universally, enjoyed SANDMAN hugely. Only two of the half dozen got any enjoyment out of other superhero comics, though, and those two were into X-MEN and TEEN TITANS.

So, when I recommended SANDMAN, it was just, you know, a girl geek thing, not a Legion geek thing.

Although, come to think of it, all the girl geeks I have known dug on ELFQUEST, too. So there's that, for what it's worth.
Anyone who likes the LSH and Understanding Comics would definitely love Zot! which is where Scott McCloud was teaching himself all that stuff. Though they seem to be a decade or so out of print, you can still get the collected volumes on Amazon.
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