In Which Nacho Admits to Reading Elfquest…

I wasn’t big into comics when I was a kid. I feel like I missed some sort of fundamental childhood stage because of that and, now, am far behind all my friends, culturally speaking.

I did follow a few comics. I got heavily into Marvel’s Epic imprint run of Elfquest. Who doesn’t like mildly gay elves, right? I was also a sucker for the whole “quest to find your progenitor race” storyline. I still am. I blame that on watching the classic Battlestar Galactica at an impressionable age. (Here’s an obsessive rant about classic BSG that has been poorly imported from the pre-2005 webpage.)

I think Elfquest is the only series I finished. An enjoyable ride all the way through, as well. My secret and, perhaps, guilty childhood pleasure. However, it’s one of those franchises that’s wildly involved and complicated. I read the 32 issues released by Marvel, but have not involved myself in the near 40 years of spin-offs, sequels, prequels, prose fiction, and god knows what else.

I also followed Marvel’s GI Joe series, of course. Who didn’t? It was one of those comics that had everything — action, a dash of Puritan romance, crime, thrills, and a winning ensemble cast of heroes and villains. Remember issues 26-27, which had no text? Silent Snake Eyes doing his thing in a series of artfully executed panels. Suddenly, there in the middle of a corporatized comic series intended solely to support the sale of toys, you get this wildly experimental — and gripping – set of issues where not a single word is spoken. That also began the whole Arashikage story arc. The complicated web of treachery and pain that pitted Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes against each other, and served as part of the strangely (for the medium and publisher) intelligent backstory of Cobra Command.

That same backstory was fascinating, at first, with Cobra hiding in plain sight most of the time. There was this odd (and somewhat high-handed) commentary against suburbia — the Cobra HQ was a Midwestern suburban community full of happy white people. This sort of neo-fascist approach to Cobra made them, somehow, even more ominous and evil. Anyone could be a Cobra agent! Classic 1980s paranoia stuff. And very effective storytelling.

Eventually this morphed to where Cobra was actually the paramilitary wing of a somewhat legitimate and wholly evil corporation. The commentary against Middle America shifted to a (perhaps ironic?) commentary against corporations. All fine and good, but that’s where I stopped reading. The series became more about a board of directors, essentially, running Cobra as opposed to the maniacal genius of Cobra Commander. The ensemble was destroyed. The personal dynamics were removed. The comics played catch-up with the TV show – starting especially with issue 49 when fucking Serpentor was introduced. In the first 48 issues, the new characters premiered first in the comics, and then as toys. After Serpentor and issue 49, the new characters appeared first as toys and then were inelegantly wedged into the comics – often without preamble or explanation.

It all ended for me when Cobra Commander was revealed to be a used car salesman operating, largely, at the whim of a corporate entity. And then there’s the goddamned TV movie where Cobra Commander is a fucking snake monster sent from motherfucking Wonderland or some shit.

I also read the Transformers comics, though I didn’t get far. With GI Joe, I think I hit issue 70 before I just couldn’t stomach the fuckery. For Transformers, I only made it through a few dozen issues. Curiously, though existing in the same real life era (and fictional universe) as GI Joe, and also run by Marvel, and also serving the same sort of brand placement/sales purposes, Transformers had almost the exact opposite problem of the GI Joe comics. It diverged wildly from the TV show. Hell, the show itself (the early seasons up to and including Transformers: The Movie), was the opposite of the GI Joe series. Less saccharine, more daring, and, of course, ultimately life changing to young minds when we get to the orgy of violence in the film. (There’s also – very lightly – that “seeking the progenitor race” theme hiding under the surface.)

The Transformers comics were an insane orgy of violence from the start, and I think I lost it when Shockwave ended up torturing Megatron Theon Greyjoy style…

Many people argue that Transformers had a different type of comic book history that influenced the storytelling and gave it the autonomy that GI Joe did not enjoy. There was a sort of Marvel U.K. (the more violent storyline) and Marvel U.S. rivalry – which might be neat in 2013, but was vaguely confounding in the 1980s. Especially when the US comic was cancelled and the Marvel U.K. comic picked up the slack and continued on.

I dabbled briefly with Marvel’s “New Universe” comics, all born and killed between 1986-1989. That was Marvel’s first foray into what’s become almost standard practice — the “shared universe” concept of storytelling (recently so hilariously mocked by Patton Oswalt on Parks and Recreation):

The New Universe title I followed was D.P. 7, about a group of people who receive supernatural powers and are thrust into action. Talk about a storyline that gets rehashed, in one way or another, every year, eh? There were some other unsuccessful titles, as well. None lasted longer than 32 issues.

I think the whole comic experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Probably because I was only ever reading the most pedestrian of titles, most of them intended to sell a product line. I talk to people today who grew up reading Batman and X-Men and all those big comics that have, like, a thousand years of insane backstory and history and are on issue gazillion where the heroes have handed their capes down through multiple generations, destroyed the universe an infinite number of times, and have backstories that you need a lifetime to catch up on. It all seems so rich compared to what I was reading and, now, as the age of 40 looms, I find that I can’t really go back and do that catch-up. I really have missed this chapter of childhood.

Though, for the record, I did go back and read the whole Marvel series of Elfquest again…and I still enjoyed it in that same all-forgiving nostalgic way I still enjoy Planet of the Apes: The Series. So maybe everything’s normal. I don’t fucking know.