Less than six hours until the blessed day arrives, the Christmas Spirit is upon me.
I wish I could say the Christmas Spirit is an impulse towards charity and forgiveness. As an unmarried, childless, over-30 boy, however, I am forced to admit that I have more often thought of the Christmas Spirit the way I’m thinking of it now: as the odd pairing of tranquility and giddy excitement Christmas engendered within me as a child. The reason I’m feeling an echo of that sense of wonder is at least partially because of a cynical, violent, profane comic book, one with a heart as black as the finish on a Glock pistol.
I started reading comics in 1987, and my personal celebration of Christmas -– my holiday gift to myself, delivered faithfully each December regardless of whether my year’s conduct could be classified as “naughty” or “nice” –- has incorporated a comics binge ever since. For a strange number of years, the Christmas of 1988 stood out in my mind as a model celebration. I was 12 years old. My family, as was our custom, had driven from our home in the western suburbs of Washington, DC to Spencer, the town in Central Massachusetts where my mom grew up. Both my maternal grandparents were still alive. For the nine-hour car trip and subsequent days of welcome inactivity, I’d armed myself with an extravagant bounty of new comics.
Particularly exciting were the expensive, squarebound “Prestige Format” issues I’d procured. At 48 pages each, these were twice as thick and at least twice as expensive as standard comics, and printed on glossy, high-quality paper that showed off the painted artwork that made them look and feel so sophisticated to me, even when the stories were basic superhero stuff (Havok and Wolverine: Meltdown, an X-Men spinoff the plot of which involved a nuclear reactor somehow) or a pulpy hybrid of the superhero and crime genres (Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, the duo that debuted its long-running, justly venerated horror fantasy series Sandman around the same time.)
I read plenty of more traditional-looking comics. I was following the regular, monthly Uncanny X-Men, then embroiled in a characteristically confusing storyline spread across several different monthly titles called, I think, “The Fall of the Mutants.” Daredevil was in the middle of a bizarre story written by Ann Nocenti and drawn by John Romita, Jr. that sent its titular blind vigilante -- who mostly fought relatively unspectacular, realistic varies of crime, at least when he wasn't being hunted by magically dissolving ninja assassins -- and sent him literally to Hell. I was also reading The Incredible Hulk, which had turned its inarticulate green giant gray, and made him a quippy enforcer for the mob in Las Vegas.
Those Marvel books were the exceptions, though. Independent comics made a huge breakthrough the 1980s, but the ones that have endured from that era, toweringly original books like Love and Rockets and Cerebus and Nexus, didn’t find me until later. Though the line of demarcation was far from absolute, if you were a committed comics geek back then, you were either a Marvel guy or a DC guy, and I was a DC guy. DC had Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman on their roster, but that wasn’t what won them my loyalty. It was their willingness to publish comics they labeled with the deliberately vague disclaimer, “Suggested for Mature Readers” – wherein any content you might find in an R-rated movie could theoretically appear. Though I seem to recall that it was still rare to find the word “fuck” in a comic back then.
These comics, which had begun with Alan Moore’s tenure on Swamp Thing and really picked up steam with the publication of both Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen in 1986, really did, in many cases, feature more imaginative characters and situations and more sophisticated narratives than the comics that Marvel, the industry leader, was publishing. But they were really good at was making a 12-year-old feel like he was reading something gritty and forbidden and adult. Marvel published quasi-grownup fare, too, or at least comics featuring blood and bare boobs, but kept them cordoned off from their familiar superhero line under a separate imprint, Epic Comics. (Epic was also a place where creators could own their work, a concession Marvel never granted, at least at the time.)
By the time I’d developed a weekly comic book habit, enabled by the presence of a comics shop within biking distance and partially financed, I’m ashamed to say, by bills purloined from my parents’ dresser (who says that reading about super heroes doesn't make a kid more morally, uh, fibrous?) Dark Knight and Watchmen had been reprinted and re-reprinted in “trade paperbacks” that found their way into mall bookstores. It was a thing to find comic book collections in bookstores back then. I was reading lots of titles that mightn’t have made it into print without those dual blockbusters, though. DC was reprinting and allowing Moore to finish V for Vendetta, an anarchistic, dystopian-future thriller he’d begun in the early 80s. The British magazine that serialized it had gone under before he could conclude the story. That one’s still well-known thanks to Moore’s enduring reputation, and the fact that it was adapted into a big-budget movie in 2006. Another comic I loved then has undeservedly vanished: The Shadow, a subversive and very funny present-day update of the vigilante adventurer who’d been a staple of pulp magazines and radio in the 1930s.
Earlier today I finished a collection of comics that conjured up an echo of the same feeling I had 21 Christmases ago, hiding out in my grandparents’ attic with my stack of comics. The book was a collection of 13 issues of a series called Criminal. I think the title is meant to be an adjective rather than a noun. Ed Brubaker is the writer. He’s written “gritty” superheroes like Batman and Daredevil, and he apparently was responsible for killing off and resurrecting Captain America, too. Nothing I’ve read by him prior to Criminal has ever grabbed me. It’s noir-ier and boiled harder than just about anything I’ve read in comics or prose. It’s drawn in a hard, shadowy style by Sean Phillips, and colored in atmospheric hues of brown or burgundy or midnight blue. The rotating cast of protagonists are all nasty people you wouldn’t want to meet in the frozen food aisle of a 24-hour supermarket, much less a dark alley. All are compelled unto their evil deeds by circumstance, rather than by, you know, arbitrary, context-free evil. Suggested for mature readers, you might say.
It’s published by an imprint of Marvel Comics. That much, at least, has changed since I was a kid.