Jonathan Dobres

between the panels

Joss Whedon should suffer for what he’s done to me. A friend of mine was kind enough to loan me the trade paperbacks of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, and I’ve been hitting the bottle hard ever since.

I haven’t dived this deep into the Marvel Universe since I was eleven, maybe twelve years old. My introduction to the X-Men came courtesy of my uncle. Like my grandfather (his father), my uncle is a pack rat. While my grandfather held onto tax returns from 1970 and newspaper clippings that were probably printed along with a Gutenberg Bible, my uncle was a quintessential comic book collector. At some point in 1992, the bulk of his collection ended up in my parents’ basement while he moved his family to Long Island. He had everything worth owning, including original copies of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Naturally, I was told that if I so much as thought about these comics too hard, let alone touch them, they could incur damage, but this did get me interested enough to track down some trade paperback versions.

As it happened, FOX began airing the immensely successful X-Men animated series that same year. My friends and I were taken by Storm (one). It was a real Beast of an obsession (two!), as if we had Nightcrawlers scampering over our meninges, inducing a brain fever (too much?).

Considering what a huge dork I was am, and considering that I had recently been granted an immensely generous four dollar weekly allowance, things could have gotten ugly fast. Luckily, my group tended to stay away from the actual X-Men comics. This was the early 90s, and it was a definite low point in the quality of comic books. Long-running titles were atrociously written, incomprehensible to new readers, or trying way too hard to reach out.

Instead, my friends and I found an outlet for the mutant craze at a local indoor flea market. My memory has shattered this place into just a handful of surviving fragments. There was a Goth Magic Shoppe near what I thought of as the front entrance, which sold incense, henna tattoos, and crystal figurines of gryphons and wizards. There was a guy who could airbrush just about anything onto a white Hanes t-shirt. This was also the place where I picked up a pair of sunglasses tinted an obscene shade of red, so that I could pretend to be Cyclops. Finally, there were the comic book guys, and if memory serves (which, granted, it often does not), they made Comic Book Guy look eerily accurate.

This being a flea market, the comic book guys dabbled in other items as well. I yawned when they tried to pitch me (hah! wait for it!) baseball cards (see??). Baseball cards were already in decline, and even though my dad had proudly collected, sleeved, and boxed entire seasons’ worth of NHL Upper Deck trading cards, the interest was not exactly genetic.

I’d like to pause now to relate a small epiphany I just had regarding my father. I had always assumed that I got my dork powers from my mother’s side of the family. This is where the comic book collecting uncle resides, and combined with my mother’s line-quotingly strong devotion to the original Star Trek, it seemed only logical (stop me before I kill again!) that the genes came from her. Now I’m confronted with the memory of my father collecting trading cards, and not baseball cards, like a normal human being, but hockey cards. As if he was some kind of _Canadian. _Apparently my father is also a huge dork, just one that obsesses over sports instead of superheroes.

In a calculated effort to separate a twelve year-old from his allowance, the comic book guys trotted out packs of Marvel Masterpieces.1 These were trading cards that depicted the Marvel Universe’s greatest heroes and most notorious villains in stunning detail. It seems almost criminal that there was never a card for Professor Xavier, but I suppose it’s hard to do a good action shot of a wheelchair.

It’s difficult to say why I liked the cards so much. The art is the main feature, and I’m pleased to see that it holds up well with the passage of time, for the most part. Take this rendition of Nightcrawler, for instance. It’s ethereal, almost Impressionist, and a fitting artistic choice for a man who can vanish in a BAMF of smoke and instantly reappear somewhere else. Unlike most of what the comic conglomerates put out in the early 90s, these showed real care and attention to detail. You could say they were items of quality. You could also say that these were the first real commodities that me and my friends purchased independently, and in trading them amongst ourselves, we got our first taste of power, leverage, and value. “Value,” is, of course, a highly subjective term. Outside our little bubble, the cards were not worth the paper they were printed on, literally. These trading cards would lead almost directly to an extended addiction to Magic: the Gathering, which, beyond the cool art, also came with a game. It also came with industry-sponsored magazines2 that listed the current market value of the cards, which pretty much ruined the fun for everyone.

I thought I had left this life behind me. I thought I had graduated from Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, aside from the occasional Hugh Jackman-laiden Hollywood iteration. Apparently I was wrong. It’s extremely easy to be drawn back to this world. Comics (and things inspired by comics) represent a series of moments reduced to their bare essentials. The beauty of it is that you can add whatever you want into the gaps between the panels. At twenty-six, you can take the bones of Joss Whedon’s excellent (as always) writing and add any number of complex social subtexts into the book. At eleven, you do something arguably much more important. You add yourself.

  1. I have to be honest with you, I didn’t actually remember that they were called Marvel Masterpieces. All I remembered was that I had a small collection of Marvel trading cards. Googling “marvel trading cards” got me close, but I knew that wasn’t quite right. I eventually remembered that one of the fancier cards (a Dyna-Etched rendition) was for a guy I had never heard of, and it seemed like a waste of highly advanced hologram technology. The guy was named Meanstreak, and I’ll bet you’ve never heard of him either. This at last gave me the clue I needed. I knew I was looking at the right set of cards when I saw that colorful rendition of Beast moving through a laser grid, above. That’s the craziest thing about living in 2008. Combine a murky smear of memory with Google, Wikipedia, and flickr, and suddenly you’re omniscient. 

  2. In my brain’s continuing efforts to freak me out, I distinctly remember owning the exact issue featured in the Wikipedia entry.