Normally I forego lengthy exposition here on Mars. But every so often, the madness of a memoir overtakes me. Today is one of those days. So, if you’d like to skip all this nonsense and simply bask in the radiant glory of Uncanny X-men #193, then just scroll your way down, down, down…
Still here? Ok, then. In 1985, I was 12 years old. Early in the year, perhaps with a cash gift for my birthday, I filled out my first subscription form. In 1985, this meant cutting out a square of paper from a Marvel comic — an act of pointless desecration that pains me to recall. Given a time machine, my first stop would be in 1985 to give a young Martian a ride to the copy shop, where for 5 measly cents he could spare the life of a Marvel comic.
Marvel was always running a deal: 16 issues for the price of 12, for example. Considering that 65 cents got you a complete comic in those bygone days of the Reagan era, you could get a lot of comics for not too much money. And so, a few months went by until I received the first issue of my first subscription in the mailbox.
At the time, Marvel placed its comics inside a brown wrapper which resembled a paper grocery bag, only less sturdy. It was a good way to make absolutely certain your coveted book would be torn, bent, exposed to the elements, and otherwise degraded well below a NM- to a VF or worse. These days, if my retailer doesn’t put that book in a silver age bag with a board and tape it shut before shipping it in a fairly indestructible cardboard box with plenty of cushioned packing material, someone will be getting an unhappy customer on the phone!
But at age 12, I simply ran from the mailbox to the house as fast as I could to kick off my shoes, jump onto the couch, and dive into the world of superheroes! It would take two more years before I discovered the joys of real Comic Shops as opposed to the news racks at Walgreens and Magic Mart; two more years before I discovered weekend employment as a golf caddy and the subsequent joy of squandering my entire paycheck on bagged and boarded back issues.
And so, I slid the comic book out of the gnarly brown wrapper. It was Uncanny X-Men #193, a double-length adventure marking the 100-issue anniversary of the “New” X-men: Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and all the wonderful characters brought to us from the minds of Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum. An occasion for rapturous thrills? A Mighty Marvel Milestone? A senses-shattering slab of superhero supremacy?
Actually, I hated it. Now, John Romita, Jr. has since earned my respect and affection as an artist, and many of his books hold places of honor in my collection. But, when I first saw his work, I felt dismay. I’d been brought up on the classic Marvel house style: Romita, Sr., John Buscema, Jack Kirby, Herb Trimpe, Steve Ditko, John Byrne — all tight, clean lines with boldness powerfully pounding the panels. The younger Romita’s light, sketchy style seemed to have little to do with all that — at least, to my 12-year-old eyes.
I finished the story and sincerely hoped that next month a different art team would be on the book. But the next month, it was the same artists! And the month after that — the same artists! This may sound stupid to you, this hope for another art team, but I had a lot to learn back then. I’d never had a subscription before. All the comics I read came from different time periods. I’d have a book I bought four months ago, and then a book I had at age six, plus a collected edition with 4 or 5 art teams, and then random books from 20 years out of Gramma’s garage. I’d never actually been with a book for any consistent length of time, but instead absorbed decades of comics’ history a la carte.
Now, with my first X-men subscription, I learned that creative teams stuck with books for a while! But my dismay grew worse. Before the subscription ended, my tender young brain received the horrifying classic Uncanny X-men #198. Although Romita Jr. gave my system a shock, he ill-prepared me for the work of Barry Windsor-Smith. Storm on the verge of death in Africa? A scene of live birth followed by the death of an old man? Realistic anatomy and humanized despair? I can appreciate this issue now, but it really was not “kid stuff.” Claremont and Windsor-Smith’s Life-Death was too intense — too adult — for a 12-year-old still accustomed to Herb Trimpe’s Hulk punching out a guy in brightly colored tights for 20 pages! It wasn’t exactly over my head so much as it was like switching from Kool-Aid to Jack Daniels without any notice.
Oh, but it got worse. Uncanny X-Men #205 showed up a few months later. What? This Windsor-Smith guy again? I don’t mind telling you that reading it gave me the most traumatic comic book experience of my entire life. It disturbed me. It unsettled me. It horrified me. Barry’s serpentine depictions of the terrifying bio-med transformation. The grotesque anatomy of Lady Deathstrike in her wires and fluids and weirdness. Do you know that feeling you get watching a really scary movie in the middle of the night with all the lights off during a storm? That’s nothing. I was ten times that troubled in the middle of a brightly-lit afternoon.
It would be many years before I could read that book without a severe case of the willies. In fact, I read it now and find it absolutely stunning! Along with Windsor-Smith’s work on Wolverine’s adamantium procedure from Marvel Comics Presents, it sets a very high bar for incorporating horror, science fiction, and superheroes. It was just a little more than I could handle back then!
In some ways, it reminds me of beer. (Fitting, as Wolverine really likes beer.) My first taste of beer proceeded my teens by a few years. It was the grossest liquid I ever put in my mouths — except maybe Nyquil. These days, I like to order the highest alcohol content beer the bar will serve me! Things change as you age, and that includes your tastes, and also what you can appreciate.
It also reminds me of calluses. When you first start playing the guitar, it hurts. Your fingers can’t take it for very long. But after time, you build up a protective layer of skin that keeps you from being so sensitive to pain. In time, it doesn’t bother you at all, and you can have loads of fun with it! Reading Uncanny X-men #205 at age 12 was like playing guitar with no calluses. I just had no protective barrier between my young mind and the pain Wolverine endured in that issue.
Shortly thereafter, my subscription to Uncanny X-men expired, and I did not renew it! But I learned a lot, and it shaped the future of my collecting. Understanding that creative teams stuck with books for a while made me much more attentive to who worked on a book, and when. I paid more attention to the artist and writer credits, and started to learn more about their work. I learned to identify what I liked, and find more of it. And while some people are loyal to characters or titles, I remain loyal to creative teams. Some readers may subscribe to X-men no matter who is producing the book, but I will always look for runs by creative teams who really “do it” for me. I also learned that just because I don’t “get” a book at first doesn’t mean it’s bad. Maybe I’m not just ready for it! The best stories age well with time, and the best of the best are almost timeless. So, don’t be too quick to dismiss something that doesn’t immediately grab you. You just might be overlooking a classic!
Now that you scrolled past all that reminiscing, enjoy the first comic book I ever got by subscription: Uncanny X-Men #193!