Sunday, May 16, 2010

L. T.: Who He Is And How He Came To Be

Hello. Felt in the mood for blogging again so here we are. Lovely. I'm not sure if I can give you guys a particular idea of what my posts will be about but they may include-but-not-be-limited to discussion based on wrestling, comics, video games, CAW... all that good stuff.

So I'm going to kick things off with a little backstory on me as a comic book reader (for context, not because I like to bore you).

As a young kid, I read the two comics most synonymous with British children's comics, DC Thomson's Beano and Dandy which, for those of you not in the know, contain several one- or two-page stories, plus a three page cover story (at least, the three-page story was the case when I was reading them both). The sheer joy that came from reading the adventures of Dennis the Menace (the bratty, ASBO-worthy UK version, rather than the lame American kid that, by an amazing coincidence, debuted only five days prior) or Desperate Dan is hard to put into words but, to a kid, it was the greatest thing ever. I was always of the opinion The Beano was the stronger comic of the two, with great characters like Dennis and his pet dogs Gnasher and Gnipper, The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger and so many more. The Dandy, though, had Bananaman, and that counted for a lot. I'm somewhat saddened now, seeing these two iconic comics- one the third longest running in the world, the other the world's longest running weekly comic- in the state they are found these days. The Dandy has fallen prey to the trap that is being XTREME TO THE MAX (the irony being The Beano actually has a sister publication called Beano Max) and The Beano goes all-but unnoticed on the shelves, with readership of both having dwindled, perhaps largely the fault of the greatly inflated cover price.

My first introduction to the world of superheroes came in 1992. It may come as little surprise to many of you that what enticed me into the realm of the "long underwear characters" was Batman: The Animated Series. Around this period, British Saturday morning TV was graced by a truly fantastic show by the name of What's Up Doc?. Given the title, it likely goes without saying it was a vehicle for Warner Bros. to promote their products and get their programming UK air time. The most popular programs to debut over here on WUD? were Animaniacs and B:TAS.

I could talk for hours about just how good Batman: The Animated Series is, but I'll save that for another time. In short, the cartoon is not only as faithful as possible to the source material, but the characterisation, plots and animation are all top notch and haven't lost any of their quality in the almost twenty years since they first aired. It also cemented Bruce Timm and Paul Dini as two talents to be reckoned with within the comics industry and it's thanks to these men Mr. Freeze was reinvented to become the tragic villain he's currently known as and, on an equally major note, the DC Universe was given Harley Quinn.

You can likely figure out from that single paragraph the respect I have for B:TAS. It's still one of my favourite shows of all time and I also personally believe it to be one of the most important cartoons ever made since it showed networks it was okay to have gritty themes in a cartoon. Many cartoons had been heading in that direction for the years preceding B:TAS, but it was WB's effort that helped cement serious cartoons as a viable possibility.

There was just one problem. There was no Batman comic available in the UK. Well, there was a short-lived comic that was pretty much aimed at kids, but even that proved hard to come by and stopped publication in 1993; the next Batman comic to be printed in the UK would be the reprint comic Batman Legends which arrived in 2003. Fact was, if I wanted Batman comics, I wasn't going to stumble upon them so easily. It was some time before I was able to pick up the Caped Crusader's adventures. Luckily, one of my other childhood favourites had a comic right around this time.

In May 1993, Sonic The Comic launched to great fanfare in the UK. Preview comics had been included with issues of 2000AD (as Fleetway Editions, who later merged with Egmont Publishing, were responsible for both comics) but, not exactly being old enough to read 2000AD, I wasn't aware STC was coming. I didn't get my hands on an issue until three months after the launch with issue six (the title was fortnightly).

As it happens, issue six was a good starting point. It led with a story written by Nigel Kitching, who would go on to write all of Knuckles' stories and many of Sonic's, including a lot of the stories most fondly remembered by the fans. Kitching soon figured out something in his first run of STC stories (which, I would later find out when I filled out my collection, broke up a lot of really rubbish stories written by Mark Millar of all people!). Well, two somethings, actually. Now, the back-up strips in STC were all based on other Sega video game properties including legendary Sega titles such as Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Kid Chameleon and Shinobi, among many others. These stories were generally six-part tales in the early going, which was in direct contrast to Sonic's stories which were all self-contained adventures, generally fluff pieces (Robotnik and/or his Badniks menace Sonic's friends, Sonic saves the day, deus ex machina is achieved).

The two things Kitching realised very soon were that, firstly, they had to risk giving Sonic some multi-part stories for reasons of both pacing and to give a larger credibility to the foes Sonic faced (if they were all dispatched within seven pages, they weren't exactly a force to be reckoned with), particularly Robotnik, whom Kitching preferred to write as a serious- almost scary- villain, in contrast to Lew Stringer's portrayal of the character as a bit of a bumbling oaf. Secondly, on a related note, Robotnik absolutely had to be in a postion of power over the heroes. If Sonic sent him packing every fortnight, then Robotnik could never be considered a feasible opponent.

After being entrusted with the honour of telling Sonic's origin story, Kitching penned a story where Sonic was thrust six months into the future. Without Sonic and Tails to stop him, Robotnik managed to conquer planet Mobius. With Robotnik in place as dictator, hundreds of story opportunities were opened up and the format ran from issue nine all the way to the magnificent 100th issue. Many STC fans believe "Mobius R.B.R." (that's "Ruled By Robotnik") to be the best era of the comic, and it's very difficult to disagree. A few issues later, Kitching wrote Carnival Night, a two-part story that tested the waters for multi-part Sonic stories. Needless to say, the fans loved it and Kitching's six-part story The Sonic Terminator being so well-received only further opened the possibility of long story arcs (which the series did eventually use).

Over the months, the other Sega franchise strips were gradually phased out, with the exception of Decap Attack, which ran sporadically until issue 132. This was to make room for other Sonic-related stories. First Tails got some solo adventures, then the Sonic's World strip was created to tell stories about other characters whose lives were affected by Sonic. Later, Knuckles received his own run of stories and Amy Rose was given some adventures too. The ancillary stories rotated through the three most important non-blue members of the main hero cast as well as Sonic's World and Double Sonic (used when multiple Sonic stories were written for one issue).

After a while, to save on publishing costs, Egmont made a gigantic error of judgement that eventually led to STC's demise. In issue 133, the pages that had mostly been occupied by Decap Attack strips were replaced with a reprinted story from STC's past. This followed Egmont's belief that their comics had five-year readership cycles (ie, that their audience was completely different every five years, so old stories could be passed off as new). It was a ludicrous idea and one that caused a drop in readership. Of course, a drop in readership meant less revenue, so they needed to save money if the comic was to be viable. Another secondary strip was dropped and, not long after, so was the other remaining five-page story, both in the name of adding reprinted stories.

At this stage, STC was practically on life support. Nobody realised how bad the situation was, though, until Nigel Kitching requested he be allowed to extend what was currently a ten-issue story arc based on Sonic Adventure and was informed he could only have the ten issues alloted to him because the comic was going fully into reprint after that point. And so it did. Issue 184 had the last new story, Point of No Return!, and issues 185-223 were all reprinted tales. Issue 223 contained a letter written by Kitching that he originally wrote for issue 200, before he knew the comic would become a reprint publication, detailing his time on STC and some information on how he came to write some of the things he did. It was a poignant, sad end for what was quite possibly the best British children's comic of the 1990s.

I've written rather a lot about STC here and I'm deviating from my story slightly. I'll likely revisit STC on this blog one day, but for now I'll tell you that at least there's a happy ending to the story. STC was revived as Sonic the Comic - Online!, a webcomic. Admittedly, it's a fanwork, but it has the approval of many original STC writers and artists and Kitching himself is an infrequent poster on the STC-O! message board. An official Sega blog even congratulated the team on bringing the number of issues up to 250 recently.

Anyway, by this point there were a few other new comics I'd gotten into reading. With the rise in popularity of The Simpsons and its comic book, Simpsons Comics, getting a UK launch, I made myself a regular reader of that title for a number of years. Simpsons Comics is a great read if you're a fan of the show. At one point it was arguably stronger than the TV series. Eventually, however, the comic lost a bit of its charm and I stopped reading it, though I'll still pick it up from time to time. Similarly, Futurama Comics started out well, but a lot of issues had plots that I just couldn't associate with a TV series as strong as Futurama and I gave up on it.

I'd also gotten into Marvel Comics. I'd always enjoyed the Spider-Man and X-Men animated series in the 1990s, even though they couldn't really hold a torch to B:TAS, and perhaps that's what spurred me to give them a read. In the UK, we have a kids' comic called Spectacular Spider-Man, which contains reprinted material from the US and some new stories aimed at a younger audience. The intriguing thing about the UK's Spectacular is that the art is often astonishingly good for a children's comic. I'm not likely to grab an issue these days, but it's more than easy to recommend it to potential comic book artists living in Britain. I recall one issue where Doctor Octopus attacked New York with octopus robots and Spider-Man had to team up with the Avengers, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four and every page was an absolute delight to look at. As an added bonus for fans of the 90s cartoon, it's set in that reality.

At any rate, Spider-Man soon became my favourite Marvel character. I bought the collected editions, Essential Spider-Man and absorbed them as readily as a sponge absorbs water. If you need any proof that Stan Lee is a master story teller (you should require none) you should definitely pick up as many volumes of the Essential Marvel books as you can since the majority of the early stories for the major Marvel characters were written by him. After a while, I expanded my Marvel fandom to include the X-Men as well as a few other titles I liked on a more passing basis.

On top of this, I discovered the comic shop at Meadowhall. Finally a place to get hold of some Batman comics! I also got a hold of a reprinted edition of Batman #1 printed for the Millennium. Batman aside, though, I remained a Marvel fan almost through and through.

All that changed in 2007. The Spider-Man series was hit by a major change in continuity with the One More Day storyline. It was a move almost certainly motivated by a desire to rope in casual readers and, unfortunately, one that was a huge slap in the face to long-time Spider-Man fans. I'd put up with a lot from Spidey, with him being on the receiving end of some truly silly stories over the 10-15 years preceding One More Day. To undo decades of storytelling, including Peter and Mary-Jane's wedding, though, was not something I could so easily forgive. I fell somewhat out of love with Spider-Man and haven't managed to properly get back into Marvel since then.

But by this time I was a University student, I didn't have much chance to properly follow the comic book world. Upon my graduation, though, I decided I was going to follow DC, particularly Batman, above the rest. I also started reading manga, with Dragon Ball (and Dragon Ball Z), Death Note and Bleach being my favourite series, though I also enjoy titles like Naruto and Battle Royale and, as video game adaptations go, Pokémon Adventures is pretty good for a light-hearted read too, if you don't mind a series that doesn't take itself horribly seriously and you have a decent knowledge of the video games.

In the last year or so I've been building a steady supply of classic Batman graphic novels. I've also looked into Green Lantern and Superman (the latter coming as somewhat of a pleasant surprise to myself, given I've never traditionally been too fond of the Last Son of Krypton). On top of that, I've discovered the marvellously funny Tick series and started collecting Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe; given I've all-but completed my STC collection, it makes sense to me I should start reading the American Sonic comics too.

It seems a shame to me, however, that comics these days- DC and Marvel, at least- are no longer just about telling great stories. There has to be some kind of big annual event that brings together as many superheroes as possible to fight a common enemy or face a threat from within. House of M, 52, Blackest Night and Brightest Day and so many more- there seemingly has to be an over-arching story that reaches beyond the mere monthly stories. It all seems like a cynical grab for publicity. It's possibly the result of there simply being too many characters and not enough pages to tell the stories in while keeping things financially viable. Yet neither Marvel nor DC can feasibly kill off hundreds of characters in the name of simplifying things. There are an awful lot of series starting with new volumes or simply beginning from scratch, too, at least on the DC side of things. Perhaps they're aware it's becoming too hard to follow.

Either way, no matter what, I can imagine comics being part of my life for years to come. I've loved these characters for practically all my life and the medium is one that has ceaselessly entertained me. There are now two comic book shops in my local area, both of which seem to be doing great business, something that makes me very happy as it suggests I'll be more easily be able to get a look in on lots of different and exciting costumed characters. Here's to a bright future for the industry and to my continued enjoyment of it!

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