Friday, May 3, 2013

Life, Jim Hanley's Universe, and Everything: How J. Michael Straczynski and JHU Comic Books Changed My Life

This week the first issue of Ten Grand by J. Michael Straczynski & Ben Templesmith came out. Another new comic in Image's creator-owned renaissance, more importantly it's the return of Straczynski to creator-owned comics and the return of his Joe's Comics imprint. I am a huge fan of Straczynski's, going back to his first masterpiece Babylon 5, and his work, especially in comics, has had a disproportionate effect on my weird life.

(This week also saw the grand opening of the new JHU Comic Books in New York City, a company I am proud to be associated with, replacing the now shuttered Jim Hanley's Universe. And JHU has also had a disproportionate effect on my weird life.) 

It goes back to 1999. The Clone Saga had killed comics for me a few years before. As a young superhero comics fan originally weaned on Tintin, I gorged myself on dime-bin castaways and grew to love Marvel Comics and Spider-Man specifically. The Clone Saga's notorious trashing of Spider-Man's continuity - and the very thought that everything can just be changed, just like that, disillusioned superhero comics for me, and by that point in my development as a reader, superhero comics were comics (the future irony of what would be One More Day, aside). Babylon 5 had emotionally, powerfully ended in 1998 and I was resolved to follow Straczynski (aka JMS) onto whatever project he would do next. As the Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade was violently aborted by its network, Straczynski moved back into the world of comics, a world he had always been a part of as a fan and had dabbled in a couple of times over the years as a writer. His first projects, produced by Top Cow, were Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. I bought up every variant (and there were many) and became a JMS-completist. Indeed, I can say fairly confidently (based at least on what was floating around eBay at the time) that for a good spell I had the most complete collection of JMS comics and variants on the planet (it got a little silly, frankly). On the strength of his creator-owned work, Marvel hired JMS to write The Amazing Spider-Man in 2001, not only creating a gateway back into the mainstream for me, but also reigniting my love of Spider-Man and the Marvel Universe at large. And if there was a time to get hooked back into Marvel, 2001 was it. As the internet really exploded as a marketing tool and the modern wave of quality superhero movies came out of nowhere to make billions of dollars, this was also the foundation of Nu-Marvel, with bold, original writers from the worlds of film and television and crime comics making indelible marks on the Marvel Universe. I was in for keeps now, a Wednesday addict, with an ever growing pile of comics bought each week.

But back to JMS. Rising Stars was a very good (if sometimes poorly illustrated) long-form limited superhero series. Midnight Nation, though, phenomenally illustrated by Gary Frank, is perhaps Straczynski's best work outside of Babylon 5. And Midnight Nation would change my life. Now, my sudden absorption and dedication to fandom was one thing (and a pretty significant life change), but what Straczynski's work would do to me, for me, was an even more profound change. I can never understate the influence Babylon 5 has had on my life, how much it changed my approach to fiction and my appreciation for the auteur. Then came Midnight Nation. Straczynski's deeply personal supernatural noir about redemption and choice had a central theme in the middle about people getting lost by life, forgotten by the world and fallen in-between the reality we know and death itself. These people could have avoided this if they had taken the slightest bit of control of their lives instead of life dictating things for them. If you don't like where you are in life, change it. It's that simple. And that message hit home exactly when I needed to hear it. In May of 2002, I packed everything I owned into my car, quit my job and drove to New York City, never to return to my middle of nowhere podunk New England life.

New York would do its best to burn me up and spit me out. After barely scraping by, I ended up homeless for two full years before ending up in Brooklyn, now my home for life.  Then in 2007, I looked at the lucrative career I had built for myself with good money and good benefits and realized it was just a job. I didn't love it, I didn't even like it any more. So I changed everything again, quitting my job once more without any actual plan but the satisfaction that, despite whatever hardships I was creating for myself, it was the right thing to do. And it was.

I loved comics and geek culture and I knew I had to do something in that field. I can't write, I can't draw, so my options were somewhat limited to commentary (which I wasn't close to qualified to do yet) and selling the things. Then I somehow got hired by my favorite comic shop in New York, Jim Hanley's Universe, now known as JHU Comic Books. As a fan, it was at JHU, one of the planet's best comic shops, that I began to discover the world of comics beyond superheroes. As an employee there, I became truly enmeshed in the artform and the medium, getting the kind of exposure and education that I never could have imagined. Part of it was the nature of the organization, for a quarter century one of America's most progressive comic stores. Part of it was the unique nature of selling comics in the heart of New York City, the diversity of product purchased by a widely diverse and very large customer base, and the unique thrill of frequently interacting with industry pros from writers and artists and editors and journalists, from the world famous to the up-and-coming. But more importantly, it was the extraordinary caliber of talent that I worked with and for, some of the best minds in comics and people that are now, completely and totally, my family. Not "family" in the casual work-sense, but truly some of the most important people in my life, people more important to me than any random blood-relative four hundred miles away I have no connection to.

Now, I'm one of the best in the world at what I do. I mean that, too. It took years for me to get to this point, though my boss - unreservedly one of the best himself, someone who I have learned more from then any other person - is quick to point out that I am not one of the best in the world and I should shut up and do my job. He's right (but of course, so am I), meaning that I will always have much to learn, that one of the best, if I really can even objectively rank as such, is still not the best. Good enough is not good enough. Which I'm fine with - I have found a job that I want to do for the rest of my life, work that I enjoy, working with and for people that I love as much as my career.

I know that to love what one does isn't common, and I am incredibly fortunate to love what I do and am very good at what I do. I live for Wednesdays and for the people at JHU that I am fortunate enough to call my family. And I wouldn't have gotten here, as circuitously as it may seem, without the works of J. Michael Straczynski. 

There are the changes in my life I have effected myself, and there are things in my life that have changed me. The supreme masterpiece that was Babylon 5 opened up my eyes to what was possible in fiction, the power fiction can have in our lives. It opened my eyes to the work of J. Michael Straczynski, who's comics brought me back into the fold of an expansive, accepting, beautiful culture, geek culture and its most vibrant outlet, comics. The specific works inspired me to become something more than what I was and landed me in the greatest city in the world. After some hardship, I came to OWN this city, and grew to love comics and the culture and found myself at one of the great institutions in the industry, JHU Comic Books. The people of JHU would become the most important influences in my life, and I have found myself as one of the best (ok, better-er) in the work that I do, work I am proud of and love.

Straczynski's works aren't the only ones to influence me - Chris Ware and Los Bros Hernandez and many hundreds of amazing graphic novels and series come to mind. And don't get me wrong, not everything by JMS is the most holy, perfect, sent from on-high thing in the world - with pride I can objectively approach each piece no different than any other creator: he has produced some great and many very good & good and some OK and a few kind of regrettable and occasionally really bad comics, but on balance more good than bad. It's just that his works have had the most seismic impact, each in the right place at the right time.

I continue to push comics in the greatest city in the world for an amazing company and amazing people that now find themselves in a state of transition. Jim Hanley's Universe is dead after 28 years, long live JHU Comic Books. We'll make it, though. On the eve of Free Comic Book Day I look at the people that it is my honor to work with and the extreme amount of work we've done in the last two weeks (by the end of FCBD I will have pulled 78 hours in 8 days - others have done more) and I am awed. The company is different, the shop is different, but the people are the same - they are them and I am me, and that's why we are going to make it. 

And then there's this review thing I've started here at the Comic Pusher. It's a very recent development - it would take me years to be well-read enough and to develop my voice for reviewing, a voice I only recently came into after even more profound and startling changes in my life that occurred a few months back. Writing about comics, the culture and the art form and the works that move me, has been something I've wanted to do for years, and now I am finally in the right place to do it. I'm not as good at writing as I am at pushing comics in person (yet), and I have far to go before I'm truly satisfied with my work here. I look at the great comic commentary being done today and I see how far I have to go - I just started, after all. But I'm also confident that I've got something to say, and much to my own surprise, people have started listening.

Comics are my life, and I wouldn't have gotten here without my family at JHU, and I wouldn't have gotten there without the City of New York, and I wouldn't have gotten to the city and to comics without J. Michael Straczynski.

So, thanks, Joe.

And thanks, JHU. Thanks Nick and Ron and Kat and Steven and Julie and Rachel and sure, Larry, and now Maddi and of course Chris West and even Jim for founding the joint in the first place and more and more and more.

And thanks, comics. Thanks Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez and Randall Monroe and Warren Ellis and Carla Speed McNeil and Fletcher Hanks and David Mazzucchelli and Alan Moore and Siegel & Shuster and Brian K. Vaughan and Jason Aaron and Mike Mignola and Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and the John Romitas and Jonathan Hickman and Garth Ennis and Brandon Graham and Meredith Gran and Tony Harris and Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Esad Ribic and Jack Kirby and Chris Weston and Kevin Huizenga and Jack Cole and Bill Everett and Frank Miller and Craig Thompson and Walt Simonson and Bill Watterson and Pendleton Ward and Fred Chao and Steve Gerber and William Gaines and Flo Steinberg and Darwyn Cooke and Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker and Naoki Urasawa and John Cassaday and Neil Gaiman and Allred & Allred and Moon & Ba and Grant Morrison and Steve Ditko and Sean Phillips and Moebius and Seth and Jason and Stan Lee and Steve Dillon and Matt Kindt and Harvey Pekar and Heidi MacDonald and Tom Brevoort and Joe Casey and John Paul Leon and Kevin O'Neil and Olivier Coipel and Brian Michael Bendis and Karen Berger and Len Wein and JH Williams III and Paolo Rivera and Michael Gaydos and Kurt Busiek and Steve McNiven and Jimmy Cheung and Dave McKean and Greg Pak & Fred Van Lente and Robert Kirkman and Will Eisner and Windsor McKay and David Aja and Jamie McKelvie and Peter David and Jeff Smith and Guy Davis and Dave Stevens and Fiona Staples and Terry Moore and Cathy Malkasian and Alison Bechdel and Herge and Michael Chabon and Ramon Perez and RM Guera and more and more and more.

The Comic Pusher's Jeffrey O. Gustafson is a manager for the JHU Comic Books chain in New York City. He also runs their webstuffs. Visit them at and @JHUComicBooks. Read more of his commentary on comics here at The Comic Pusher and on twitter @B5Jeff. Yay comics!

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