In Q & A, a weekly feature of Fantastic Fangirls, we ask our staff to tackle a simple question — then open the floor to comments.
What comic book title has grown on you over time?
Um. If I don’t like something, I stop buying it. Therefore I am using this space to post something ridiculous:
Most of the time, if I hate twenty issues of a comic in row (or, you know, five), I won’t keep reading it. Then there is Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: the Last Man.
I didn’t start reading Y until the final issue had already been published, because I wanted to be able to experience it all at once. I made this conscious decision because, by the time I had heard of the comic, there were already about 50 issues out and the 60-issue endpoint had already been announced. Waiting seemed sensible. By the time I picked it up, the series had acquired a reputation as one of the best ‘complete’ stories in comics. It also had a writer I already admired in Brian K. Vaughan. That might explain why my initial reaction to the series was, “Seriously. . .this?”
The premise of Y, established in the first issue, is that a mysterious plague has killed every male creature on earth, except for a college-age slacker and amateur magician named Yorick Brown. I was intrigued by the premise of the series, and at the beginning I liked everything about it except Yorick. I kept asking myself why, in a story where almost all of the characters are female, the male viewpoint character is literally the most important person in the world. (To be honest, I still wonder that when I see Y top the list of ‘comics to give your girlfriend.’ Guys, do you really think the book that goes to such lengths to comfort its male readers as to their centrality is the best book to convince women what a thoughtful guy you are?) I didn’t think Yorick’s wit or charm was as great as the author seemed to think it was, and I rolled my eyes several times at Yorick’s ability to get out of sticky situations despite having no apparent skills to justify his success.
But. . .here is what I’ll say about Y. It grew up. It grew outward. The story started from a point that, I assume, began in Brian K. Vaughan’s imagination. It began with a world that was focused on Yorick and his immediate needs and surroundings. As the story continued, however, its view and focus evolved outwards. Individual issues were devoted to peripheral characters — often characters who later moved toward the center. At many points, it is possible to see a fact that Vaughan learned or an idea that he developed while writing the book, and to see it take root and develop along with the narrative. I remembered, as I read, that Vaughan started the book as a very young writer. It isn’t that often that readers have the chance to watch a talented creator mature and discover the world he’s writing about as thoroughly as Vaughan does in Y. I ended up loving the book, for all its imperfections, because I felt I was sharing the process of discovery with the writer. Yorick grew up, and Vaughan grew up with him.
This may be Brian K. Vaughan week at Fantastic Fangirls. Caroline’s answer above addresses some of my own feelings on Y: The Last Man, and on Wednesday I’ll be sharing my thoughts on rereading my favorite BKV series, Runaways. But my own answer to this particular question is BKV’s third seminal comics work: his superhero-turned-mayor epic, Ex Machina.
Ex Machina was one of the first comics I read — perhaps my very first superhero comic, if you can call it that. Before I’d started reading comics, a friend of mine worked at a comic book shop, and one day I dropped by to visit him. Determined to get me into the fandom, he strode across the shop, grabbed the first trade of Ex Machina, rang it up on the cash register, and shoved it into my hands.
I read it. Given my friend’s enthusiasm, how could I not? But I was unimpressed. I could barely follow the story, not yet possessing any real knowledge of the language of comics, and I found Tony Harris’ art generally stiff and uninspiring. I didn’t know what to make of the use of 9/11, and I didn’t care about any of the characters. All in all, I felt no great need to read more, and I put the trade on a shelf and promptly forgot about it.
Fast-forward a few years. In that time, I’d fallen headfirst into the world of comics. I’d read and loved all of Runaways. I’d read and generally liked Y: The Last Man. And I’d acquired a much greater working knowledge of the comic book form. It was time to give Ex Machina a second chance.
I wish I could say I fell in love with the series the second time around, but it still didn’t become one of my favorites. I never warmed up to Mitchell Hundred as a protagonist, or to Tony Harris’ art. The book’s politics frequently frustrated me, and some plots (like the Vatican arc) were downright terrible. But I found myself really appreciating the supporting cast, particularly sidekick/bodyguard Bradbury and deputy mayor Wylie. And I came to admire and envy BKV’s ability to construct a single issue, to master the comic book form and craft issues and arcs that always, always made me want to read what happened next. I kept reading, first in trade to catch up and then in single issues as the comic came to a close. And while I’m still not sure I loved the series, or even that I liked that final issue, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the book and the fates of its characters in the month since I finished it. I even mentioned the series in my introduction at the blog run by my academic program. My opinion of Ex Machina has come a long way from my bewilderment when that first trade was thrust at me, and though my relationship to the text remains complex, I can’t deny the impact it’s had on the way I look at comics.
I’d have to go with Thunderbolts. Thunderbolts was recommended to me by a friend when I was trying to figure out what parts of the Avengers-related titles I cared about and what I could ignore. This was right after Disassembled, which I’d loved, and I was starting to read New Avengers, which I also loved. A friend loaned me a short box of T-Bolts comics and I jumped in at the beginning.
I wasn’t won over by the comic at first. None of the characters really grabbed me, and I to this day don’t care about Baron Zemo in any of his forms or identities. (But, note, once upon a time I said that about Norman Osborn. It’s amazing what a great writer with a great story can do.) But I kept reading because this short box of comics was sitting on the dresser next to my bed, and why not stick it out? I’m glad I did.
Because, see, Thunderbolts is actually, thematically, about the sort of thing I value. Consequences, redemption, and living with yourself. T-Bolts has variously been a team of reforming villains, a team of heroes, a team of anti-heroes, or, recently, a team of straight-up psycho villains masquerading as patriotic icons. I have grown to love all these incarnations for what they do, for how they play with and against the concept of heroism. I love watching characters rise past themselves and into greatness, only to fall again. I love watching characters brought to the limits of their strength and finding out whether they have anything else to give.
At its worst, Thunderbolts is an average superhero comic. At its best it is a sarcastic, wry, impassioned look at the nature of heroism in society. It’s a comic that examines what we value in heroes. After all, this is the comic that gave us the word “toyetic.”
Under the new Heroic Age banner I am still loving Thunderbolts. Jeff Parker has brought together an insane cast of characters. I’m really looking forward to seeing this next iteration of the team.
What comic book title has grown on you over time?