I Come from the Future and I Must Break You…(for some reason that I can’t remember)

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August 15, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

I don’t quite remember what sparked my first foray into comic books back in the early 90s.  I don’t know if it was the X-Men animated TV series, or if it was the fact that the older kids in the neighborhood were all reading comics and to try in hang with them. I started to look at some of theirs…without actually being able to read the words.[1]  What I do know, is that the reason why I wanted to learn how to read was because I wanted to read both Goosebumps and comic books.  One of the things I first remember reading, besides Frog and Toad of course, was Uncanny X-Men 188.[2]  Again, I don’t know if it was the cartoon, or if it was the comic book themselves, but from a young age I was an X-Men fan.

Most of the comics I read as a kid were used back issues, either from the older kids on the block who out grew them, or ones that my aunt had picked up for me.  That being the case, despite the fact that this was happening between 1994-1997 (right after Bob Harras had taken a gargantuan shit on the X-Men, but right before he effectively killed the franchise), most of the issues I was reading were actually from 1987-1992, (arguably the golden age of X-Men).  Even though I was reading these issues for the first time, in the mid-90s, they were really about five or six years old by that point.  When it came to comics, I was a 90s kid living in an 80s world.  I had jumped onto the X-Men’s past, not the present, so my original perception of 90s X-Men was not only incredibly misguided and passé, but actually based upon late-80s X-Men.

Since the few issues I was able to get my hands on were from the mid to late 80s, all of my exposure to the 90s X-Men and storylines came via the animated series.  Taking into consideration how I started reading comics, plus my interest in early 90s culture, mixed in with everything I now know about the X-Men as a work of fiction and as a franchise, it explains why I have such contradictory feelings about 90s comics.  I love the stuff with Nathan Summers (X-Factor 65-68, The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix), but I don’t like Cable and everything he represented.  I really, really, really, wanted to like Bishop, but the most I could muster was thinking he had a cool look.[3]  This trend of ambivalence towards 90s comics isn’t limited to the X-Men though; in Batman I never liked Bane, I was giddily horrified by Venom, but thought Carnage was lame, and I knew that Superman wasn’t going to stay dead for more than three weeks.

I realize why I never gravitated to these characters, even though basic cable and an overactive imagination told me that they represented everything I thought was cool.  To me, Cable and Bishop were the same kind of character: Gunman.  All they did was run around shooting people with a gun….and they were always pissed off about something or other regarding their shitty dystopian futures.  When you’re surrounded by a guy who can turn himself into metal, the world’s strongest telepath, and a woman who can control the weather, and all you do is shoot a gun, you’re gonna be the lamest one there.  From the cartoon series (and again from the eyes of a preschooler) all Cable did was try and off Apocalypse, and fail every time.  All Bishop did was go around shooting people because he had a bad case of amnesia.  I didn’t even know he had a mutant power until I started reading issues with him in them.  Bane was just the supervillain version of Jose Canseco, and after Venom we didn’t really need Carnage.[4]  All of these characters epitomized the truth about 90s comics: That style had achieved final victory against substance.

As a kid, you automatically side with style over substance, because for the most part, as kids, we’re all style and very little substance.  For me, I was very much about the style, but it was conditional.  I wanted to like Bishop, but nothing about him made me like him; I was really excited for Mortal Kombat Annihilation, until Johnny Cage was killed off; originally, Wolverine was my favorite X-Men, until I realized that he was everyone else’s favorite too.[5]

Conversely though, I had some sense of substance too.  Two-Face has always been my favorite villain; this hasn’t changed in over 20 years.  Seeing as how there have been way more ruinous interpretations of the character than any other Batman rogue, my initial realization as to what made Two-Face such a threat to the Dark Knight was that they had once been friends and allies.  The complexity wrought from the loss of the noble Harvey Dent, along with the hope of one day bringing back the good man he once was, is the centerpiece of their antagonism.  Along with Harvey Dent’s psychological war with himself, these were the things that first drew me to the character as a kid, and why I still pick up issues featuring him.[6]  From what I was able to discern from the cartoons, having his background, his motivation, and his complex relationship to the Batman, made me like Two-Face more than someone like Bane, someone who was cool (he broke Batman’s back), but had nothing to offer besides being a roided out punk who liked to read the dictionary.  Bane wasn’t motivated by chaos or revenge, nor was he driven by tragedy, he was merely powered by steroids, without which he was not a threat at all.  He was Steroidman, nothing more.

Now, as an adult (a term I use very loosely) my mentality and opinions are very much the same when it comes to 90s comics.  The first wave wasn’t too bad; the Cables, the Bishops, the Carnages, etc.  But once Deadpool got his own series, and once Image formed, and then the whole big Onslaught thing, it blew up in everyone’s face revealing that style without substance can be cool, but it’s unsustainable.  That’s why the best Cable stories aren’t when he’s trying to kill Stryfe, or struggling in his role as proactive, but ineffective mutant messiah; they’re when he’s Nathan Summers, like in The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix.  It’s when we get to explore the characters with their guns in their holsters that they become more fleshed out and fully formed, and therefore more enjoyable.  Gunman may be cool for a while, but if he’s Gunman all the time, people get sick of it; that’s why only 17 people in American even know that the Punisher has a real name.

When we look back at the 90s as being a dark period in comics, we still compartmentalize all those clichés which almost killed the industry.  We recognize the bad aspects to the decade, but we’re capable of further breaking the bad down into two categories:

 That which was bad but still awesome

  • Omega Red[7]
  • X-Force
  • “Knightfall”
  • Deadpool

 

That which was bad…even at the time

  • Todd McFarlane writing comics
  • X-Men 42-113/Uncanny X-Men 322-
  • Every drawn out storyline regarding how Pyslocke actually swapped bodies
  • Bob Harras

 

The former category is made up of events, and characters that we liked at the time, because they were cool, and edgy and dark.  It’s only with hindsight that we realize how pointless they all were; even though they weren’t particularly good, it doesn’t hamper our enjoyment of them.  The latter category is made up of things that we knew were bad even as they were happening, primarily for the fact that we realized that they all lacked heart and substance to them.  The first category is reserved for those who tried to make substance from style, while the second category is reserved for those which are 100% style, completely forsaking substance.

All Cable did, was be Cable; all Bishop ever did, was be Bishop.  They were gun-toting soldiers from the future, trying to improve today for the sake of tomorrow.  They were always angry and violent, and had (sic: half-assed) convoluted/mysterious origins.  My first introduction to them, and really clichéd 90s comics in general, was watching them go around shooting people because they had to “for the sake of the future”.  For me, even as a kid, that was too easy and lazy of an objective.  If they were going to hang with my X-Men, I didn’t something more from them.  What I didn’t know back then however, was that the comic industry did want Cable to be like the X-Men, they wanted the X-Men to be like Cable: simplistically emotive, with a veil of convolution to masquerade as complexity, and characterizations defined by plot devices and not individual personalities.  The truth behind Gunman, is that inherently, he has to be a character that is plot driven, the X-Men under Chris Claremont were 72% character driven.  From the 90s on, comics became increasingly driven by plots, while using characters interchangeably.

Maybe what it comes down to, is that I never felt I knew who Gunman was.  Instead of concerning myself with what they were doing, I needed to know where they came from, and why they did the things that they did.  There was chaos in Gunman’s actions that never seemed to justify itself to my 5 year old counterpart.  Gunman isn’t just Cable, it’s also Bishop, and Bane, and Carnage, and Stryfe, and Deadpool, and every other character that owes its existence to Wolverine and Image Comics.  These are the characters who made comic books, and comic book tropes clichéd.  The epitomize style with little to no substance to them.  They are all about action (the whats), but not about characterization (the whys and hows).  As a kid, the one question I asked more than any other was “Why?”.  Gunman just never gave me an answer.

 

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[1] These were the days before I was a literate human being who could pronounce their “R’s”.  At that point in time, my biggest contribution to society was knowing that Mark David Chapman was the one who assassinated John Lennon.

[2] Given the density and wordy nature of Claremont’s writing, and the emotional maturity of the content, I am astonished and completely flabbergasted as to how a five year old, especially one as fidgety and hyper as myself, could have: 1) finished an entire issue, despite having no idea what just happened, and 2) decided that they wanted to continue following the X-Men.  I also remember thinking that the issue was really boring.

[3] Like as much as Nugget fans try to like JaVale McGee and convince themselves that he’s a worthwhile project even though he’s already 26.

[4] And all the other shitty cash-cow symbiotes that were created once Marvel realized their stock price would double for every issue featuring either the symbiote or Jim Lee.

[5] This last one just makes me seem way more arrogant than any five year old should be.

[6] Even if Peter Tomasi decides that Harvey Dent is actually an unethical scumbag who should commit suicide.

[7] His whole thing was that he hated Wolverine and was once one of his fiercest enemies, even though he only met Logan once…for about three minutes.

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