Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Secret Origins (Part 2)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But how did that passion for comics develop? Each week, Secret Origins will shed light on the personal journey Greg and Nick have each taken through the world of superheroes.

Greg Phillips: Welcome to the second installment of the Secret Origins. We’re the Hard-Traveling Fanboys, and we’re back to delve further into our own personal histories with the fantastic world of comic books.

Nick Duke: When last we left you, Greg had experienced the comic boom of the ‘90s and I had developed a love of all things Batman. However, Greg eventually exited the world of comic buying, while big things lay on the horizon for my fandom.

Greg: As the new millennium approached, my interest in comics had all but evaporated. I was content to never buy or read a comic book again. Nick, what was your comic book status heading into the year 2000?

Nick: Still not buying monthly books and not even really aware of things called comic book shops. However, as the new millennium started, with it came the rise of the big-budget comic book movie.

I never saw 1998’s “Blade” until years later, but I distinctly remember the build-up to Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film and how excited I was for its release.

That's a pretty cool poster, you have to admit.
That’s a pretty cool poster, you have to admit.

Greg: Being huge action movie buffs, my parents rented “Blade” as soon as it was released on video. We all enjoyed the film, but strangely it didn’t do anything to spark my curiosity about the books themselves. The movie still holds up well, but to my eyes it was merely a good action film about a lame comic character. “X-Men,” however, was a different story.

Like you, I remember being stoked about finally getting to see the X-Men in live-action. Sure, there was that made-for-TV Generation X movie, but let’s forget that. These were the characters I loved more than any others in comics at the time, outside perhaps Superman and Batman. Needless to say, my nerd juices were flowing. Err, just ignore that visual. When the movie came out, I was blown away. It’s easy to discount the film in hindsight (and I do think it’s an above-average film), but it was absolutely vital to the industry. It was a huge risk, and it paid off in spades, both at the box office and critically.

Nick: And when the movie hit, I loved it. Being a 12-year-old kid, I thought the all-black costumes, the action and, most importantly, Wolverine were just so cool that the movie became a bit overrated in my mind. But, it did serve an important purpose of getting me more interested in tracking down comics. I flipped through a few X trades at the local Books-A-Million, but didn’t find anything I really understood. So, I gave up for the time being.

Greg: Modern fans often bemoan the costumes, but at that time they were likely necessary to get the movie off the ground. So many in Hollywood still viewed comic book properties (outside Batman) as too niche. Singer found a way to universalize the characters and made it possible for us to get actual superhero costumes on the big screen in later years.

“You’d prefer yellow spandex?” Hmm…

Did the movie get you to seek out other books after the X-Men trades didn’t hook you? I found myself revisiting some of my old comics afterward, but still afraid to try any new stuff.

Nick: Not really. I flipped through a few things here and there, but our local store was woefully behind on its DC selection, and I hadn’t yet grown to identify with any of the Marvel characters. Had there been a copy of something like Batman: Year One on the shelves, things may have been different.

Greg: About a year after “X-Men” was released in theaters, my local library began carrying select trade paperbacks and graphic novels. During my junior and senior years of high school, I’d occasionally pick up trades (usually collections of old stories). I recall finally getting my hands on an X-Men trade, the first volume of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, and really liking it. But whenever I’d think about going to the local comic shop, I’d hear a horror story about what a jerk the owner was, or I’d remind myself of Onslaught and the end of the Clone Saga.

Your mileage may vary on Xorn.

Two years after “X-Men” broke new ground, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” changed the entire landscape of comic book films. The hysteria surrounding that movie’s release was mind-boggling. I had just graduated high school, and my friends and I were bound and determined to see the movie on opening night.

Nick: It really was incredible how much buzz was going around. I think it’s probably the closest our generation has come to the stories of Batmania from around the time of the 1989 release. I still remember the initial trailers set in the World Trade Center where Spidey took down some gunmen.

I was so disappointed when the movie got pushed back as a result of 9/11, but when May 2002 rolled around, I was there. I remember going on Sunday of opening weekend, sitting in a packed theater and just loving the hell out of that movie.

It's morphin' time!
It’s morphin’ time!

Greg: I think “X-Men” was vital in showing us that, hey, it could be done! These characters could be brought to life! That, combined with some great trailers and expert marketing, had my friends and me salivating. “X-Men” had lobbed the ball, and we were hoping “Spider-Man” would finish the alley-oop with a dunk. We were concerned, of course, being cynical 18-year-olds, that the movie would be a cheesy failure, but we were all blown away that May night. I will always remember leaving the theater with a giant grin on my face and high-fiving my buddies.

Nick: And it was that movie, coupled with great timing and decision making on the part of Marvel, that finally got me into comics.

About a week after the release of “Spider-Man,” still riding high on Spidey euphoria, I was walking through the local Wal-Mart and happened to see a book called Ultimate Spider-Man. I picked it up and flipped through the first few pages. Here was a character that seemed close enough to the one in the movie that it grabbed my interest. The first few pages featured a 14 or 15-year-old Peter Parker enduring torture from his high school classmates, while also introducing us to Ultimate Norman Osborn. I convinced my mom to grab it for me, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Greg: What was it about this particular version of Spider-Man that hooked you after years of not reading comics?

Nick: The biggest thing was accessibility. More than anything about Peter or his supporting cast, it was the fact that I could pick up volume one and read the entire story as it unfolded. There was no need to sift through 40 years of backstory or continuity. As much as some hardcore comic fans get upset when relaunches or reboots happen, there is power in that “#1” you can slap on a cover. More than just a sales boost, it gives new readers a place to jump on. The old adage is “Every comic book is someone’s first comic book,” and I had been waiting for a book that personified that. These days, I find myself getting upset when DC or Marvel tosses out years of story such as in the first days of the New 52 or the aftermath of One More Day. But, I always have to remind myself that it was a ploy similar to that that brought me into this world I now love so dearly.

Outside of just the accessibility, though, Ultimate Peter Parker remains one of, if not my favorite fictional characters of all time. He was a 2000-era teenager written as such. Brian Michael Bendis’ characterization and voice for Peter was one I instantly related to and quickly grew to empathize with. His courtship of Mary Jane was nothing if not awkward, which pretty much described all of my interactions with the opposite sex up to this point. Throw in great supporting characters like Aunt May, Kong, Liz Allen and Flash Thompson, and it really did feel like a true-life high school setting come to life. Plus, there was pro wrestling in the first volume, so added points there.

An ultimate kiss
An ultimate kiss.

But, soon, I was back for volume 2, then 3, then 4. I eventually bought nine trade paperback volumes of Ultimate Spider-Man. I still pull out that worn copy of the first volume whenever non-comic readers ask me for suggestions on what stuff to try.

By the end of 2003, I was caught up on the trades and was experiencing the pain of “trade waiting” for the first time. What about you, sir? Where were you with comics at the time?