By Kevin Leslie
With Sandman, Neil Gaiman brought a new kind of fan to comics. Well, maybe several new kinds of fans. You had the folks who liked to wear lots of black clothes and makeup, but you also had fans who just appreciated well-written comics—the generation that had read Alan Moore, but didn’t have much use for superheroes. The new Vertigo line from DC Comics was meant to fill that void. Several ongoing titles were rebranded as Vertigo Comics, and were meant to act as jumping on points for these new readers.
Animal Man #57 was my first crack at “sophisticated” mainstream comics and it might be the reason I still read comics now.
When DC first envisioned their new Vertigo fan, I'm not sure they were thinking of a kid who would need to get a ride from his mom to the comic shop, but back in 1993 I was still several months away from getting my license. The guy at the counter let me buy Animal Man #57 without a word. I share that because I had tried to buy Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled at the same store just a little earlier, and they told me they couldn’t sell it to me unless my mom said it was okay. I was too embarrassed to ask and put it back.
I loved the cover. Brian Bolland is a great cover artist, but this one in particular always stuck with me. It’s like a disturbing Norman Rockwell painting.
One of the conceits of Animal Man that pre-dated the Vertigo version was that Buddy Baker (a.k.a. Animal Man) was a superhero, but also a family man. This issue was mostly about Buddy trying to take the kids to run errands. I read the comic on the way home and laughed out loud when Buddy’s daughter, thanks to the use of her animal-talking-powers, was able to explain to a dog owner that the reason her dog was upset was because it wanted to have sex with another dog. I actually read the line out loud to my mom. I’m sure she probably thought about reconsidering her stance of, “I don’t care what you read as long as you’re reading.”
I guess I could chastise Vertigo for trying to convince me I was a more mature consumer of comic book literature by pushing titles such as: Sandman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man and Shade the Changing Man. The names were silly, as were the original creations themselves, but the mostly British authors did turn them into something interesting, and they were perfect for a teenager. The comics were downright dangerous compared to anything I was being exposed to in high school. They were also a generous source of “further reading.” Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman got me interested in Michael Moorcock, which led to British SF, which led to me writing a lot of bad short stories that continually got me in trouble in college. There seems to be lots of choices these days for dark humor, but in those days I found mine in Vertigo. It shaped a lot of my interests and personality from there forward, probably to a fault.
It’s hard to look back and determine exactly what was going on that continually pushed me towards the escapism offered in comics. I had stopped playing with toys at an age appropriate time. I liked and thought about girls constantly. I played sports. So what was it? If I had to guess, I would say boredom.
School was boring. I was intellectually bored.
I didn’t have any Dead Poet’s Society teachers. I had teachers in their 60’s punching the clock until retirement. I had few outlets for creativity in my school work, so I explored it through comics and role playing games. My friends who shared my common interests were interesting and funny. They weren’t the generic types you would meet in a mall, unless they'd just been arrested for shoplifting (I kid, but not really). I was someone who was always doing what he was told, but was starting to realize that might not be the best way to go about living my life. I wasn’t bold enough to start breaking all the rules, but I began to feel comfortable letting people know that I might not like them.
I always associated my new path with comics and music. I was getting more of my entertainment fix from the fringes; and even if lots of people shared in what I was consuming, those people tended to be more interesting. It’s strange to reflect on how much those things shaped my identity. I wore shirts with my favorite bands and comic book characters (I was too cool to wear a Batman shirt, so I tended toward the more obscure, like Madman or Flaming Carrot). People knew I was into comics and weird music because I showed them. Your chest used to be the only place for Facebook status updates and Tweets.
Years later, music has become a much smaller part of my life. I used to sit and listen to music and do nothing else, just listen. Now, sometimes I put something on in the car going to work; and I do a lot of dancing to music with the kids, but it’s not a personal thing for me anymore. I can take it or leave it.
Comics, for whatever reason, are still this thing I can’t quit.
I hardly buy anything these days even though it’s a golden age of independent books and newspaper comic reprints. It’s hard to justify the expense with a family. I’d love to have a huge library of the stuff, but I can keep myself in check. Still, I follow lots of comics-related news sites and find myself thinking about comics more than the vast majority of the world does. I worry that if I just get rid of everything my sons won’t realize how awesome I am for reading comic books, as if they’ll ever be on the playground and scream, “My dad is into Los Bros Hernandez and 90’s Brit Pop!”
If I hadn’t found Vertigo comics would I have left comics behind in my teens? I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I had. Maybe I would be better at geography, or know how to play the guitar. Instead, I’m filled with useless knowledge and a fondness for the smell of decaying newsprint.