The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Comic Books”

Monsters and Masterminds – Pro Wrestling’s Supervillains

A few days ago I wrote a blog comparing superhero archetypes to the heroic characters in professional wrestling. It’s only natural that I would do a companion piece for the villains. Pro wrestling bad guys are usually referred to as “heels” by those in the business and those who follow it, so don’t be surprised if I start throwing that term around liberally. I got my start as a writer by working for a wrestling news website, so a lot of the terminology is ingrained in me. Bad guys are heels and good guys are babyfaces. It’s just what I know.

As in any other form of media, a professional wrestling hero is only as good as the villain they are paired against. And just like most other forms of media, the bad guys have their fans as well. Somebody who appreciates the art of storytelling is likely to recognize a well done villain and enjoy seeing them. And because professional wrestling is a performance art, sometimes the heel is a better performer than the babyface and gets cheered by fans who value talent above the story going on.

If that seems like an odd phenomenon, consider the popularity of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight or the fact that the character of Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds helped make Christoph Waltz a star. If a villain is more interesting and the actor playing the character is more talented, can we really be blamed for cheering them over the heroes? I think not. That is the nature of art appreciation.

Grundy

The Monster: The Destroyer of Everything

The concept of an unstoppable beast of destruction is ancient, as old as any plot device in the history of storytelling. Noble knights slay dragons, David battles the giant Goliath, Perseus survives the deadly Medusa, modern man faces the soulless threats of artificial intelligence and extraterrestrials. These monsters are usually not considered to be intelligent, and if they are than they lack any morals and present a danger to everyone around them. While easily the least complex of villains, monsters play a vital role in storytelling because of the threat they present. When Doomsday killed Superman, something nobody thought they would ever see, it was national news. That’s what a good monster can do. And when somebody manages to bring down a monster, it feels like an accomplishment. It takes a lot of effort to make Batman defeating The Riddler feel like a difficult feat, but put him up against Killer Croc or Clayface and there’s immediate tension.

Professional wrestling is a genre that thrives on the monster trope. In a world where massive size and brute strength alone can make somebody an attraction, it isn’t a surprise that many of wrestling’s most successful villains have been dominating giants. Probably the most famous match in wrestling history put the heroic Hulk Hogan in the seemingly impossible position of trying to defeat the villainous Andre the Giant. The early 1990’s saw two very successful monsters; the 600 pound Yokozuna (Samoan wrestler Rodney Anoa’i) was the WWF Champion for most of a year between WrestleMania IX and WrestleMania X. In WCW there was The Man They Call Vader, a man who was not as large as Yokozuna but compensated with startling agility and absolutely vicious punches that looked real because they are often were. Vader’s battles with Sting are of particular importance to me because they got my older brother hooked on wrestling, which led to me getting the bug as well.

Brock Lesnar

While wrestling as a whole has seen a trend towards smaller, more athletic wrestlers, that doesn’t mean the monster trope is anywhere near dead. Instead the monsters have evolved. Pictured above is Brock Lesnar, an absolute freak of nature who seems truly superhuman. He has the legitimate credentials of being a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion in amateur wrestling as well as a run as the UFC Heavyweight Champion. While he is imposing at 6’3″ and around 300 pounds, what makes Brock truly scary is the mix of strength, speed and stamina that make him a virtually perfect athlete. With all of these assets and his legitimate credentials, he’s arguably the most effective monster heel in the history of wrestling. His matches are a spectacle because every person he is pitted against is an underdog in the fight of their life.

Doom

The Mastermind: The Smarter, Unscrupulous Puppet Master

Not everyone is a physical giant. Indeed, those freaks of nature are actually pretty rare. So most villains are defined instead by the greatness of their ambition, their intelligence, and their ego. When these traits mix with unlimited resources and a lack of scruples, we are presented with perhaps the most dominant villain archetype of the last century, and certainly in comic books; the Mastermind. This is the person who is smarter than everybody else and believes this puts them above the rest of humanity; rules are for the simple minded and power is there to be obtained by those brave enough to seek it. Mad scientists, corrupt politicians, criminal millionaires, evil dictators – we all know this villain when we see it. The likes of Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom and The Red Skull have all had lengthy careers with this trope.

And wrestling has its fair share of evil masterminds as well. In fact, perhaps the most effective way to show wrestling fans you are a bad guy is by using your intelligence to target an injury or avoid some crowd pleasing but high risk attack from the babyface. Tapping the head to indicate one’s intelligence is a surefire way to get the crowd booing you. “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair was arguably the greatest bad guy in the history of pro wrestling, and he prided himself on being smarter than everyone, breaking any rule to win matches and by using his influence to have a gang of thugs called The Four Horsemen do his dirty work. The most prolific villain of the late 1990’s was Vince McMahon, the real life owner of the World Wrestling Federation. Using his position of power to play on the common man’s hatred of the evil boss, Vince used his influence and his creativity to sabotage the promotions most popular heroes.

Edge

One of the defining aspects of the wrestling mastermind in recent years has been taking advantage of injuries. Adam Copeland, pictured above, portrayed a character named Edge who was hated by most of the audience but used his intelligence to become one of the most decorated stars of all time. He revolutionized the business when he won a “Money in the Bank” Contract that allowed him to challenge the World Champion at any time of his choosing. Instead of using this opportunity in an honorable way, he waited until the champion John Cena had successfully defended his title in a grueling match against five other men in an Elimination Chamber (a massive cage with metal chains) to cash it in when he was at his weakest. Now it was not just the strongest and the toughest that could become top dog, but the smartest and most devious.

One of the reasons I choose to promote wrestling on this blog is to expose people to great characters that they may not have otherwise known. Wrestling is an episodic television show with characters that constantly evolve and add new layers forming personas that become downright iconic along the way. Even if one never acquires a taste for the specialized art that goes into creating a great wrestling match, it is possible to find a character in wrestling that resonates with you. If you enjoy heroes and villains, and if you read a blog about comic book characters, you probably are, I am willing to bet that you can find something to like in the world of professional wrestling.

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Juggernauts and Underdogs – Pro Wrestling’s Superheroes

My last article that focused on professional wrestling explained the similarities between that genre and comic books. My primary reason for doing so is that comic book superheroes have become a mainstream, “acceptable” form of entertainment in the last fifteen years. Costumed superheroes are more popular than ever and most people are familiar with the basic tropes and character archetypes they will be seeing when they pick up a comic book or go to the theater to see a superhero movie. This means that I can use the language of comic books to explain the language of professional wrestling for someone who has never watched a professional wrestling match.

I discussed how wrestling is based on the idea of heroes going up against villains. It’s not just a war of punches and throws and stretch holds; it’s a bigger story about conflicting values and ethics. Today I want to take a look at the various kinds of wrestling heroes and how they compare to some common comic book tropes.

Thor

The Juggernaut: The Unstoppable Champion of Good

Okay, so in comics the term “Juggernaut” is generally associated with the X-Men character Cain Marko, who is usually a villain. But I like to use the term as shorthand for heroic characters blessed with great strength and resiliency, a champion of good who is able to stop the forces of evil that are too strong for normal men to defeat. I’m talking mythical heroes like Hercules and Achilles and Gilgamesh, and of course the Norse god Thor and his comic book interpretation. Other comic book heroes that fit into this archetype include Superman, Shazam and Colossus from the X-Men.

This has been a very common trope in wrestling, particularly in the WWE. Back in the days when the promotion was called the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1960’s and ’70’s their most popular star was Italian strongman Bruno Sammartino, who held the promotions World Championship for the better part of twelve years and was rarely ever defeated. When the promotion began it’s national expansion it was with Hulk Hogan as the face of the company, who was probably the closest thing to a real life superhero we’ve ever seen. The idea of this type of character is to show that the forces of good are stronger than the forces of evil and to provide an idealized hero that children and adults can aspire to be more like.

Sting

The formula even proved successful in World Championship Wrestling, who were able to create top stars like Lex Luger and Sting in an effort to appeal to that segment of the audience. And for the last ten years the WWE has stuck to their guns by promoting John Cena as the kid-friendly invincible superhero that always triumphs over the bad guys. The usage of this trope is probably the strongest connecting link between comic books and professional wrestling. It’s also an important aspect of the genre because seeing these wrestlers absorb more punishment than seems possible only to overcome and wow the audience with incredible feats of strength is a way to quickly understand the fictional nature of wrestling. When someone is able to recognize the themes of classic fiction they are able to appreciate wrestling for what it is.

Of course, these supermen aren’t always the most compelling characters for many fans. While Superman and Hulk Hogan have inspired many with their squeaky clean boyscout personas, they fall flat for others who wish for characters to be flawed and vulnerable. And much like how comic books wouldn’t be successful if they only used one type of story, wrestling has another major archetypal hero that I want to discuss.

Daredevil

The Underdog: The Hero Who Never Quits

Fans of Marvel’s Daredevil have quickly learned that not every Marvel comic book character is gifted with immense strength and the ability to shrug off bodily harm. One of the main reasons the show stands out is that Matt Murdock takes numerous severe beatings, feels pain and loses a fight or two. But he never quits. He licks his wounds and gets back up again, now a little smarter and a little tougher. This vulnerability helps to create an emotional bond between the character and the viewer by channeling our empathy. We identify with his suffering and wish to see him overcome and persevere.

There are many who would argue that this is the only way to make a compelling hero, and while I don’t fully agree with that, it is certainly the easiest way to make a character sympathetic. It also helps to emphasize a character’s other strengths beyond simple physical strength; intelligence, resourcefulness and the ability to overcome adversity. It’s easy to see examples of this in other media: Homer’s Odysseus, the Arabian legend Aladdin, super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and even modern literature heroes like Harry Potter. These are people who aren’t blessed with any extraordinary physical gifts but their conviction and ability to endure suffering makes them heroes. Comic book examples include Daredevil, Captain America and Batman among others.

In professional wrestling, the vast majority of “babyfaces” (the good guys) who are not the top face of a promotion fit into this trope. The 1980’s had heroes like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat who had his throat crushed when “Macho Man” Randy Savage attacked him with a steel ring bell, but came back from injury to get his vengeance. Villains would work crowds when they wrestled popular team The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, ruthlessly beating Ricky Morton for minutes at a time before Morton was able to tag his partner Robert Gibson into the match. The 1990’s saw smaller underdog heroes like Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels assume the role that Hulk Hogan had dominated for over a decade.

Bryan

Today’s wrestling scene is perhaps the golden age for the underdog hero. After roughly thirty years of seeing the top stars be unstoppable juggernauts, many fans prefer to see smaller wrestlers as WWE Champion. The most universally cheered wrestler is Daniel Bryan, pictured above. Shorter than six feet and weighing less than two hundred pounds, Bryan is a small man in a business where giants have had the most success. But because of Bryan’s athleticism, intelligence, intensity and refusal to stay down, he is a larger than life star embraced by the audience. We empathize with him; our hearts sink when he fails and we leap for joy at his successes.

And this is why professional wrestling should not be looked down upon or considered less than other forms of entertainment. The heroes in wrestling have the same ability to connect with an audience and make them relate to what they are going through and cheer for them. Professional wrestling is not a sport; it is art.

Relentlessly Excellent – Marvel’s Daredevil Is Must Watch

In the interest of full disclosure, my headfirst dive into the world of comic books was because of an interest in DC superheroes. I knew who the big Marvel heroes were of course, but they hadn’t managed to captivate me the way that most DC characters had managed to do so. So when I started buying comics in 2011 with DC’s New 52 Relaunch, it was a while before I even considered seeing what the other company had to offer.

There were three comics that caught my eye. The first two were Wolverine and the X-Men and The Uncanny X-Men, which I both picked up because of my childhood love for the characters. The other was a comic that had a lot of buzz after winning the Eisner Award for best comic, and that was Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. My exposure to Daredevil had been somewhat limited but I knew that he was the one Marvel property that had a grounded and more realistic tone. So I decided to give it a shot, and I have to concur with with the fine people who give out the Eisner Award.

Mark Waid’s Daredevil book is nothing short of comic book perfection. It is a mix of the swashbuckling colorful adventures of Daredevil’s early adventures and the gritty, brutal realism of the 1980’s Frank Miller era. The book also features one of the best artists in the business, Chris Samnee. Reading this book immediately established Daredevil as one of my favorites and opened the door for me to try other Marvel characters.

Murdock

Needless to say, I have a lot of sentimental attachment to ol’ Horn-Head. And it really bothered me that most casual comic book fans would only know Matt Murdock and his masked alter-ego from the 2003 film starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and Michael Clarke Duncan. While far from the worst comic book movie ever made, it is one of the least original, mixing elements of the two most successful comic book movies to that point: Spider-Man and Batman. And while it isn’t entirely off base to summarize D.D. as a mix between those two heroes, neither of those movies were good examples of how to make a quality Daredevil movie.

But like “Battlin'” Jack Murdock, the Daredevil property has shown that it can take a knockout punch and get back to its feet, bloody but not defeated. Marvel was able to get the film rights to the character back after a decade without another Daredevil film. Rather than create a blockbuster movie, Marvel decided to expand their Cinematic Universe in a new way by partnering with Netflix to create a thirteen episode series starring the man character. Once it was announced that the series would be rated TV-MA, it was clear that Marvel was willing to break new ground in order to present Daredevil in the best way possible.

So does the show do Matt Murdock justice?

Dual Identity

The short answer: it absolutely delivers.

Marvel’s Daredevil is a grounded, bloody, and most importantly, character driven masterpiece. Fans of the comic book character will find it difficult to point out what is lacking. In his civilian identity, Matt Murdock is a young lawyer fresh out of college, starting his own law firm with his best friend Foggy Nelson. As a child, Matt rescued an elderly gentleman from being run over by a truck carrying radioactive chemicals, and in the process was blinded when the chemicals got in his eyes. While Matt could no longer see, his other senses were heightened to superhuman levels, making him more aware of his surroundings than he was when he still had his vision.

Matt spends his nights as a vigilante in a black mask, using his superhuman abilities and fighting skills to protect innocents from the criminal element of his hometown, Hell’s Kitchen. A suburb of New York City, Hell’s Kitchen was nearly destroyed in the Chitauri invasion that took place in Marvel’s The Avengers and the most powerful crime lords are making their moves to make the profits of rebuilding the city. Matt’s conflict with two Russian brothers and their human trafficking run soon puts him up against every major criminal in the city, and eventually against the Kingpin of crime, Wilson Fisk.

D'Onofrio

While he started as a Spider-Man villain, Wilson Fisk has been synonymous with Daredevil comics for a long time. They have one of the most personal and heated rivalries in comics and truly despise one another. So it is fitting that the Kingpin character is the main antagonist of this show. Yet even with this long established history, this show manages to tread new ground with a remarkably sympathetic take on the character. Fisk is given as much focus and development as Murdock, and the characters mirror each other throughout the series as they both rise to the top of Hell’s Kitchen.

The show excels in presenting characters who are flawed and complex. Matt is shown to have anger issues and struggles with the decision of whether it’s morally right to kill someone to prevent the suffering they are causing others. This is not just an internal dilemma as Matt’s Catholic faith is given its proper spotlight. On the flip side, Fisk is presented as a very human character who believes that he is trying to help the city. There is also a well-developed romance subplot between Fisk and a woman named Vanessa, an art dealer who believes that he is someone special.

The show stars Charlie Cox as Murdock and Vincent D’Onofrio as Fisk. Both actors embody the characters fully and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles. D’Onofrio in particular is nothing short of amazing and has made sure that Wilson Fisk will command as much respect among Marvel fans as big screen baddies Loki, Red Skull and Thanos. But that does not mean that Cox should be overlooked; he perfectly balances Matt’s grief, his dry wit, his moral and religious struggles and ultimately the conviction that makes him a hero.

The Devil and the King

The supporting cast includes Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Deborah Ann Woll as murder suspect Karen Page, and Vondie Curtis-Hall as reporter Bill Ulrich. There are also a couple of smaller roles with more famous actors; Rosario Dawson is a nurse named Claire who serves as a potential love interest for Matt, and classic Daredevil villain Leland Owlsley is played by Bob Gunton of The Shawshank Redemption fame.

This is not something you want to miss. If you have Netflix, there is no reason not to watch this show. Daredevil is one of the best products that Marvel Studios has released to date. It does justice to the character and to the hard work of everyone who has made him one of the most interesting characters in comics.

Batman: Hush – The Book That Made Me a Comic Fan

You never forget your first.

Well, okay, that’s not necessarily true. I know I perused through some of the Green Lantern and X-Men comics that I older brother was reading in the mid-1990’s but I don’t have any definite recollections of those. But I do have a distinct memory of the first time I went to my local library to see if they had any graphic novels I could borrow, since I was dirt-poor at the time. This was about a year after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movie (and Iron Man to a lesser extent) had rekindled my interest in superheroes after a slew of bad Spider-Man and X-Men movies had made me convinced they were only for kids.

Joker

At this point calling myself a “comic book nerd” would be a gross exaggeration. I had never gone to a comic store or sat down to read a comic book. I was just a guy who liked Batman and wanted to know more about him. The book that caught my eye was the second volume of Batman: Hush by the superstar creative team of writer Jeph Loeb and artist Jim Lee. Lee was best known for doing the pencils on the most successful comic book of all time, X-Men #1 (1991) and had recently made the transition to DC Comics after his own comic book company was bought out. Jeph Loeb was best known for his collaborations with Tim Sale; the pair had worked on such acclaimed books as Spider-Man: Blue, Hulk: Grey and a few Batman books, most notably The Long Halloween.

Batman: Hush was one of the most successful runs DC has had in the last fifteen or so years, largely because Jim Lee’s artwork is always a hit with fans and Loeb at the time was a well-respected writer. But they were also able to keep readers on their toes with a mysterious new villain who was teaching Batman’s various enemies new tactics that kept Batman and the readers guessing. While that was going on, Loeb was also able to use one of his favorite characters in a big way. Selina Kyle, better known to most as Catwoman, was always a big star in Loeb’s works with Tim Sale, and she has a starring role in Hush too as Bruce Wayne pursues her as a serious romantic interest. While the suspense of the Hush mystery doesn’t have as much of an effect on me now as it did when i first read the book, I find the romance between Bruce and Selina to be really fun and it’s always what I remember most fondly about this book.

Hush

I have to give credit to the creative team here; Hush was just about the perfect story to introduce casual Batman fans like myself into the big world of comic books. Since I had watched a handful of episodes from Batman: The Animated Series (the 1990’s other great gift to superhero loving TV viewers) and the two Nolan films, I already knew who characters like Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Ra’s al Ghul were. So I didn’t feel uncomfortable when these characters showed up and it allowed me to get wrapped up in the story and in the visuals.

And those visuals are what made me love comic books.

Jim Lee’s pencils have always been very striking, filled with minute detail on backgrounds but also bombastic posing and gripping facial expressions. And while Alex Sinclair deserves all of the credit in the world for his amazing coloring work in these comics, what stood out to me most from a visual standpoint was the flashback scenes where it’s nothing but Jim’s pencil work. For a first time comic reader, realizing the level of artistry that had gone into crafting this book was of immense importance. I started to appreciate the value of visual storytelling, how a drawing can display emotions that prose writing never could. And while it took me a while to get to a point where I could buy comic books regularly, reading these comics for the first time got me hooked on the genre.

Gatefold

Perhaps a little too hooked, honestly. I now have trouble reading normal books because I feel like they are missing something without the visuals. On the other end, I started paying a lot more attention to visuals in movies as well, which greatly enhanced my understanding of how films are made and thus my love of cinema.

Now that I have the benefit of several years and a few rereads, I will be honest and say that Hush is probably a little too drawn out at points and the ultimate reveal of who is behind the mask is really pretty obvious even early on. But that doesn’t keep it from being one of my favorite comics of all time. I always recommend it to new comic readers because it serves as a crash course into the world of Batman. The heroes, the villains, and the civilian characters like Commissioner Gordon are showcased and used remarkably well, and even a detour into Metropolis and a run in with Superman feel like a natural extension of the plot.

Jim Lee’s pencils are awesome and are made even better thanks to the inking from Scott Williams and the brilliant coloring work from Alex Sinclair. This book is still one of my favorites in terms of artwork. As for the writing, Jeph Loeb’s Bruce Wayne is one of my favorite takes on the iconic character; emotionally vulnerable without feeling out of character. Loeb seems to understand that just because Bruce has very few friends does not mean that he is unloving. If anything, he’s more attached to the people he lets into his life because he’s so careful about who he does let in.

The other reason to read this book is that there is absolutely nobody anywhere who has a better grip on Catwoman. Loeb’s love for Selina Kyle is evident any time I read one of his books featuring her and I never quite enjoy Selina the way I would like to in other writers’ hands. So if you are a fan of Catwoman or would like to know more about her, this is definitely a book that you should look into reading.

Kiss

Are Superhero Movies Killing Comic Books?

Being a comic book fan in today’s world is a much different experience than it was when I was a kid. I grew up in the 1990’s where the only superhero who had a movie with a budget was Batman, and most of those films were not particularly engaging. No, if you wanted a real superhero fix, the best place to go was to get a comic book off the shelf at a grocery store. Yes, you could still find Superman and X-Men comics in the magazine section of a store when I was a kid. Alternatively you could watch cartoons so long as your comic book interests only went so far as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. But unless you were actively browsing comic books, it was almost impossible to feed that interest.

Case in point: I only knew who Captain America, Iron Man and Green Arrow were because I liked video games and they had a few comic book based video games at the time that caught my interest.

Nowadays, Marvel and DC superheroes are more visible than ever. The X-Men have their own movie franchise, Batman has been in a series of critically acclaimed films, and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has turned the Avengers into household names. Green Arrow and The Flash headline popular TV series and Daredevil just got a series on Netflix. Superheroes are everywhere, and because they are everywhere it doesn’t make you uncool to like them. In some ways, not having an interest in superheroes is now the exception rather than the rule.

As the phrase goes, “Geek is Chic”.

Phase 3

However, parallel to this is that comic books, the original medium for these heroes, are going through some changes. Marvel is not some small company with a niche product, it’s owned by the massive and highly successful Disney company. They are about to make more money from the opening weekend of The Avengers: Age of Ultron than they will make from the entire year’s worth of comic book sales. Now that paper comics only account for a fraction of Marvel’s income instead of the primary source, they are not as valuable and may very well be on the road to extinction.

If that sounds like hogwash, consider that Marvel has recently cancelled The Fantastic Four, one of their longest running comics, because the film rights are owned by Fox Studios and Disney and Marvel will not make much profit off of them. And even the significantly more popular X-Men franchise is being phased out at present because, again, Diseny does not own the rights to make films with those characters. It is disheartening to say the least.

While DC has the rights to all of their characters, one has to wonder if they will care that much about their comic books if they are able to make the billions of dollars that Marvel is making off of their movies. While they have struggled in recent years to captivate a large audience, there is certainly potential for DC’s iconic characters to become critical and box office successes. But while I am excited to finally see Wonder Woman and Aquaman on the big screen, I worry about what it will mean for comic books in general if all that matters is the success or failure of movies.

Are comic books going to die?

Aquaman

The answer to that of course, is “no”.

For starters, there is a side benefit of successful movies. They are commercials for comic books. While Batman was always popular, he only starred in Batman and Detective Comics for the better part of fifty years before commercially successful film adaptations helped to elevate him in the public conscience. If you go into a comic book store today, it would not be unexpected to see half a dozen or more comics starring The Dark Knight, not to mention a library of collected works. This is because those movies generated interest in the character and brought an audience into comic book stores wanting to know more about this character they now love. The Avengers are more popular than the X-Men for the first time in over two decades because of the success of the film.

Perhaps no where is this more evident than in the sudden surge of Guardians of the Galaxy comic books. A comic book that was so obscure even die-hard geeks would have a difficult time naming more than one character on the team was the basis of one of the most successful movies of 2014. And suddenly Marvel is selling comics starring those heroes by the truckload. If publicity and awareness is used to promote a quality product, that product will sell and make money.

Guardians of the Galaxy

There’s another, more subtle benefit to this process that is probably going to take a little more time to truly impact the comic book industry. The fact of the matter is that graphic novels have a broader audience and cover more ground that just superheroes. Marvel and DC may be the big dogs on the market and they are what the outside world thinks of when they think about comic books, but there are a variety of independent companies that also make a dent in the comics industry. Some are pretty large, such as Dark Horse and Image, but there are also plenty of others looking to make their mark. There’s also the relatively young sub genre of comic books that are independently posted on the web by young artists who are willing to put in the work to promote their material themselves and to provide something different than usual comic book fare.

As comic books gain more mainstream acceptance and more people become willing to try out a comic, the more people will be exposed to these other comics. The first time I went to the comic book section of Barnes & Noble to pick out a Batman comic, I left with a Batman comic and a comic that I never knew existed but caught my eye: American Vampire, a comic for mature readers printed by DC’s imprint Verigo Comics. And I loved it.

American Vampire

While superheroes may be moving from the comic book format and making TV and movies their homes, there will always be a demand for the unique medium of comic books. The industry is not going to die, but I think it will surprise people with how much it is able to evolve in the face of a changing world.

The X-Men: Marvel’s Most Relevant Comic Book

Superhero comics have maintained at least some level of popularity since the late 1930’s where DC’s first truly iconic characters showed up on the scene: Superman (first appearing in Action Comics #1 in 1938) and Batman (debuting in Detective Comics #27). At their core, superhero comics are morality tales where a force of good challenges a force of evil and defends innocent bystanders. Over time, the two major comic publishing companies (Marvel and DC) were able to create expansive universes with a wide variety of characters, creating something that would appeal to everyone.

By the time I was growing up in the 1990’s, Marvel was firmly established as the most popular brand of superheroes, largely riding the wave of one franchise’s popularity: the X-Men. 1991’s X-Men #1 (written by Chris Claremont and with art by Jim Lee) was the highest selling comic book of all time. And while some of that can be attributed to the four variant covers that combined into one enormous picture and even more credit goes to speculation that any comic with “#1” on the cover would be worth millions some day, the X-Men were definitely the most popular comic book franchise at this point.

X-Men

This particular comic was far from the first X-Men comic ever printed. The first X-Men #1 first saw print in 1963 and was written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. That first issue only had five X-Men and put them against their first and most enduring nemesis, Magneto. The X-Men were introduced to the audience as “mutants”, people who were simply born different from other human beings and gifted with special powers. Bobby Drake could create freeze the air around him and mold it into a variety of shapes, becoming known as Iceman. The winged Warren Worthington III become known as Angel, Hank McCoy’s enormous hands and feet led to him being called The Beast, and Jean Grey (then known as Marvel Girl) was gifted with telekineses (the ability to move objects with her mind) and limited telepathy (the ability to use her mind to speak to and affect the minds of others). These powers sometimes came at a cost; while Scott Summers’ ability to release a beam of solar energy from his eyes was an impressive weapon, it also prevented him from safely opening his eyes. A special visor was created to contain the beam and gave him a one-eyed appearance that would led to the codename Cyclops.

These five young mutants were trained by a powerful telepath named Professor Charles Xavier, a man in a wheelchair with a dream to unite humans and mutants together peacefully. The book established that many humans feared and even hated mutants, partially because of their powers but also because it is human nature to fear what we do not understand. The fact that mutant terrorists like Magneto, the self-styled Master of Magnetism, were more than willing to fight back did little to help matters. The X-Men were put together to defend the world from mutants who would harm it, and to protect innocent mutants from those who would do them harm.

First Issue

All five of the original X-Men would still be fighting Magneto almost three decades later on the above cover, though they’d all gone through some pretty drastic changes and were joined by another five characters that had joined the team in the meantime. The original series lasted 66 issues before declining sales led to the series becoming a series of reprints. The series would be revitalized in 1975 when writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum introduced a new team of X-Men with an international flavor. Kurt Wagner was from Germany, and had a devilish appearance and the ability to teleport in a puff of smoke. Russian-born Piotr Rasputin could turn his already impressive frame into living metal, and Ororo Munroe’s ability to control the weather had made a goddess to a tribe of native Kenyans. Along with these three (codenamed Nightcrawler, Colossus and Storm respectively), Len added one of his previous creations: Wolverine. The mutant with metal claws, enhanced sense and an ability to recover from wounds at an abnormal rate would go on to become the most popular X-Men of them all.

Giant Size

The book was renamed The Uncanny X-Men and once writer Chris Claremont joined the creative team, the book became synonymous with dynamic characters, epic storytelling and innovative ideas that helped to change the course of comic book history. By the end of the 1980’s, what had been a book that nearly faded into obscurity had become one of the top sellers industry and had spawned several tie-in comics. In order to meet the demand, a new series called simply X-Men was created in 1991, leading to that historic number of sales I referred to earlier.

Now that I’ve finished that brief history lesson, I want to talk about why this article refers to the X-Men as “Marvel’s Most Relevant Comic Book”. This isn’t because other Marvel books aren’t popular or have good writing and good artwork. I say this because X-Men is a series with several key moral themes that most comics weren’t willing to try writing about at the time.

The X-Men acknowledged that being different from the people around you has a dark side. Some people do not like those who are different, and they will persecute and bully and even kill because of these differences. Bear in mind that these ideas were front and center in this comic that was being published and marketed to children in the 1960’s. This was an era where people of different races, cultures and gender identities were starting to vocally announce that they were not going to stand idly by and allow the government and the people around them to treat them unfairly. Bigotry was a way of life, and this comic proposed that it was morally wrong to be prejudiced against others.

X-Men is a book that celebrates the diversity of humanity. The X-Men come from many different parts of the world, including countries that Americans do not have the best history with. Some are male, some are female. They have different skin colors, different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, different sexualities. And they work together for the greater good and learn to embrace the differences in each other.

This is a powerful and positive message that had a profound impact on me growing up. I was a fan of the 1990’s X-Men cartoon that played on Fox Kids, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the bigotry toward mutants was an allegory for real life persecution. The X-Men reinforced to me the idea that we are all people. We all deserve to be treated with respect, we all have something worth saying and we all should treat each other with kindness. It taught me to view women as equals, to be color blind and to embrace people with new ideas and from cultures other than mine.

The X-Men had a profoundly positive impact on my life and helped to shape my values.

And they were also my introduction to the world of superheroes, a spark that years later would become one of the most important aspects of my life. I would not be writing this blog today if it weren’t for the X-Men. And thanks to them, I’ll be writing plenty more blogs in the future.

Welcome to “The Shelf is Half Full”.

Group Shot

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