Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Secret Origins Part 1

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.

Nick: Welcome everyone to the very first edition of Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Secret Origins. My name is Nick Duke, and joining me each and every week will be my hetero-lifemate, Greg Phillips.

Greg: That’s me! Nick and I share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other.

Nick: This column, like all our other columns that will be popping up on the Place to Be each and every Thursday, will be a bit different from most you might find across the Internet, in that Greg and I will be tag teaming it every week for your reading enjoyment. We’re kind of like those old car advice columns in newspapers where the two brothers would bounce text back and forth. Newspapers, how lame.

Greg: Each week in Secret Origins, we’ll give you a glimpse of how comics have affected our lives and why we’ve come to care so deeply about an industry that’s too often discounted in the public eye.

Nick: I guess the best way to start this is to go back to the beginning. I’ll take it even further back than comics, though. Greg, do you remember when you had your first superhero interest? Or maybe even an interest in something that came from a comic, but you didn’t know it at the time?

Greg: Much like my earliest wrestling memories, my earliest superhero memories tend to flow together, but I’m sure it was one of the Donner Superman movies. I was born in ’84. By the time I was 4, I had a working knowledge of Superman, probably by seeing TV airings of Superman and Superman II. I distinctly remember loving Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Hey, I was 4 when I saw it, give me a break! Even at that age, I liked the bad guys, and I (embarrassingly enough) thought the Nuclear Man was awesome.

Nuclear Hitler?
Nuclear Hitler?

Nick: Ah yes, the Donner Superman movies. Probably the first exposure for a lot of people, I would imagine. Those first two movies still hold up fairly well, even if they aren’t the end-all, be-all interpretation of the character that some find them to be. But, that’s another discussion for another day.

Greg: What about you, Nick? How old were you when you became aware of comics or the characters that filled them?

Nick: For me, even as a kid born in 1987, it was the 1966 Batman television show starring Adam West. Campy as hell, but to 4-year-old me, it was pure nirvana. The old Family Channel used to run marathons on weekends in addition to back-to-back episodes every weekday, and I was hooked almost immediately.

Another one that pops to mind, even though I never drew the link to comics as a kid, is the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Which, of course, kind of falls under the same category as the 1966 Batman show — campy, but I never knew what campy was in those days.

Greg: Yes! Syndicated reruns of the Batman show were also a staple of my early years, particularly when we’d visit my grandmother, who had satellite TV. Of course, I didn’t realize the show was campy at the time. To me, Adam West and Burt Ward were expert fighters.

Nick: And I thought the different villains were great back then. I had no idea they could be taken seriously. But to pose another question, what drew you in to those Donner movies? What was it about those flicks that turned you on to the idea of costumed superheroes?

Greg: It’s funny how these things tie together, but I think it may have been my inherent love of pro wrestling. Because I was already used to the idea of larger-than-life heroes and villains doing battle every week on TV, the idea of an even larger than larger-than-life hero that could put all the bad guys in their place really stood out to me. I guess Superman just seemed like a natural extension of Hulk Hogan to me, somebody I could look up to and admire.

And in those Donner movies in particular, he had such a charm and such a way of carrying himself that it seemed like Superman was the embodiment of who I wanted to be when I grew up, at least in terms of character.

Nick: Such a great point! I can probably say that Hulk Hogan was the first larger-than-life hero I ever had, so you’re right, pro wrestling and superheroes probably just fit naturally together in my young head.

Words to live by.
Words to live by.

For me, with Batman, it kind of reminded me of the stuff my dad watched on TV. His favorite show growing up was Zorro, and Batman just felt kind of like an extension of that to me. It makes sense that so many from our generation identified with superhero media after our parents’ generations and the generation before had stuff like Zorro, The Lone Ranger and the different radio pulp serials.

So, you see Superman at a young age. After that, do you immediately start reaching for everything superhero-related you can find?

Greg: As I recall, it actually wasn’t long after I first saw Superman IV, which would’ve been sometime in 1988, that I discovered comic books. I loved to read at that age, and comic books seemed so much cooler than the normal children’s books I read. I remember being at the grocery store, and in those days comics were still sold next to magazines on the newsstand. As my mom and I were standing in the check-out line, I saw a wonderfully bizarre cover featuring my favorite hero, Superman! It was Superman #14 by John Byrne, and my mom thankfully caved in to my relentless begging and bought it for me.

Hal and Clark enjoy a leisurely stroll through my high school geometry project.

It also featured a character I’d never seen who would later become very important to me — Green Lantern.

Nick: That’s so cool that you can remember your first comic. I honestly cannot. I know it was either an issue of Batman during the AzBat days, an issue of Superman with the Joker on the cover wearing the Superman costume or an issue of Spider-Man that I begged my dad for just because it had the Hulk on the cover. It was weird for me, though, because even though I loved every comic my parents would sporadically buy for me, it never developed into a full-fledged comic hobby at a young age.

I remember my dad recording all the episodes of Batman on our VCR for me to watch, and once I had seen them all five or six times, my mom went to Wal-Mart or wherever and bought me a copy of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. And that thing got played out. I mean, probably once a week at one point. I can still remember the cheesy Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck short that was on the tape before the movie that was just advertising stuff from the Warner Bros. store. After that, pretty much anything I saw with a dude in a mask on the front, I begged for. Plus, my aunt and uncle used to own the old video store in our hometown, so I started burning through stuff like the Donner Superman movies and the old made-for-TV Incredible Hulk and Captain America specials.

I would watch every comic-related thing that came out as a movie or on TV, but I never made the leap into books. What about you? Were you a collector as a kid?

Greg: I wouldn’t classify myself as a collector, only because I didn’t understand the importance of taking care of the books. I was more like Galactus, just consuming every superhero book that caught my eye (and that my allowance would pay for).
I was extremely lucky to grow up in that era, because several important things happened as I grew up that made me even more immersed in comics. In addition to Tim Burton’s “Batman,” a rarely seen X-Men animated pilot (“Pryde of the X-Men”) hit the air around the same time. In 1991, I picked up what would become the biggest-selling comic book issue of all time, X-Men #1 by Jim Lee. The cover was so awesome, I just couldn’t resist, and I instantly became an X-Men addict.

It doesn't get much better than Jim Lee's Cyclops and Wolverine.
It doesn’t get much better than Jim Lee’s Cyclops and Wolverine.

You know the old saying about the kid and the candy store? Forget candy. To me, the first time my mother took me to the comic shop (and in a sign of the times, a giant poster outside informed us that “POGS ARE HERE!”) it was like walking through the gates of heaven. Those five to 10 books at the grocery store were a mere molehill compared to the mountain of superheroics now at my disposal. Soon my mom was taking me to the local comic book shop (the only one in our small town of Venice, Fla.) every Friday so I could spend my allowance on X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Force and X-Factor in addition to Superman, Action Comics, Adventures of Superman and Superman: The Man of Steel. A year later, the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men cartoons hit television screens, and I was hooked even more. I was already getting Todd MacFarlane’s Spider-Man book, and I started buying Batman comics regularly just in time for “Knightfall.”

And the best part? At this time, reading comic books was actually cool! Almost all the kids in my elementary school read Marvel books, and of course everyone was interested in “The Death of Superman.” As my friends gradually got over their wrestling fandom, their comic fandom only grew, meaning I had at least one thing still in common with them. By third grade, we regularly met on the playground to trade those awesome early ’90s Marvel cards. Anyone with a hologram card was considered grade school royalty.

Nick: Like I said, I never made the leap to books. Our local grocery store only carried four or five a month, and we had no dedicated comic shop within driving distance.
I DO remember, however, when my Bat-obsession got kicked into the next gear. After the foundation was laid by Burton’s “Batman” and the 1966 show, “Batman Returns” came along. Now, most might have memories of this movie that are less than fond, but it’s the first movie I can remember seeing in theatres, and it’s held a special place in my heart ever since.

Of course, shortly after that I discovered Batman: The Animated Series, and that was all she wrote. I soon found my way to the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons that were airing, and I became a comic fan-kid who didn’t read comics.

But, to backtrack for a just a second, I really want to pause and throw even more praise the way of BTAS. Outside of books themselves and the recent Dark Knight trilogy, that show was probably more responsible for my love of the Bat and all things superhero than anything else.

Greg: I definitely agree. BTAS many times did a more effective job than the comics themselves of crafting a compelling Bruce Wayne and making complex, interesting stories that were still accessible to kids.  And it made me care about characters I’d never seen before in the movies or the comics, like Clayface, Mr. Freeze and even Maxie Zeus.

Nick: It really was a phenomenal representation of the character that was one of the few things I loved watching that my mom or dad didn’t mind sitting there and watching with me. And those toys based on the show? Man, I probably had them all at one point or another. Many a Two-Face vs. Hulk Hogan match was staged in my toy wrestling ring, I can tell you.
But I can’t even imagine what my young mind would have made of a real-life comic shop. So, when you started reading hardcore, what were you, 6 or 7?

Greg: I’d say 7. About the time I discovered X-Men #1 is when I became that kid that just HAS to get the next issue of each comic. Before, I was content just picking up random issues and reading them as stand-alone books, which didn’t work well with Superman, since all the titles were tied together!). But from age 7-13 I was all-in on comics and anything remotely associated with them — stickers, games, movies, TV shows and the aforementioned trading cards (even the lower-quality DC cards).

Since my reading generally stuck to specific lines (X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman), those cards really introduced me to two universes worth of characters, even lame ones like Peacemaker or Nomad. (Sorry, Nomad fans…)

The Marvel Universe version of Poochie.
The Marvel Universe version of Poochie.

Nick: See, I didn’t even have access to stuff like trading cards. That would have been HUGE for me, probably something like an early version of what Wikipedia is now for modern comic readers.

Greg: That’s actually a great analogy. Many a schoolyard debate was “settled” by those cards. “No way Thing could beat Hulk. His strength level is only a 5 to Hulk’s 7!” “Well the Living Tribunal could beat them both!” “Oh yeah, well Apocalypse’s card doesn’t even tell what his power is! That’s how strong he is!”

Nick: I think one of the things that should be taken out of this is how much it sucked to be a young nerd growing up in the rural south, 30 minutes drive from anywhere, without the Internet.

So, since I wasn’t reading yet, let me ask you this: How hard was it for you as a kid to stick with a particular book even if you didn’t like an issue or two? I mean, kids have notoriously short attention spans, and I can only imagine the reaction if my 8-year-old self had picked up an issue of something like Grant Morrison’s Batman run.

Greg: Honestly, at least in my early comic fandom years, I’m not sure I even differentiated between bad comics and good comics. They were merely comics. Everything that happened was supposed to happen, and if I didn’t understand something (especially words), I found a dictionary or a card and tried to look it up. The art probably stood out more than anything in those days. I could tell if I didn’t like the way a book was drawn, but even then I was pretty lenient. Anatomy? Whatever, did it look COOL or not?

That being said, as I aged I grew a little more critical, especially when we were struggling financially and I had to start cutting books. It was still hard to differentiate good writing from bad, but it wasn’t as hard with characters. I hated Azrael, so Batman was the first character to hit the cutting room floor. Soon after, the world’s biggest Superman fan gave up Superman books. The storylines post-return weren’t necessarily bad, but they were certainly boring to 10-year-old Greg. I held onto X-Men and Spider-Man until the bitter end, though.

Nick: That’s a great point. I don’t know that my young mind ever differentiated between good and bad superhero entertainment either. I loved every episode of the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons, even the later episodes of X-Men and the godawful Spider-Man Unlimited show. The only superhero-related thing I ever hated as a kid was Batman Forever. It lost me early in the movie when Two-Face flipped his coin, ignored the outcome and flipped again. So, there I was, 7 years old, audibly complaining to my dad in the middle of a crowded theater. I told him the movie was really bad when we left, so even at 7, the fanboy rage was building inside me.


But you mention having to cut titles. The collapse of the speculator market seems like it happened sometime around then. Were you aware of comics losing popularity or were you kind of just inside your own little childhood bubble? And also, you mention holding onto Spidey and the X titles until the bitter end. When did that bitter end finally come, and was it a conscious decision on your part to just give up comics altogether, or was it more that you just weren’t enjoying them as much as you used to?

Greg: In regards to the first question, I was aware. Believe me, I was aware. I mentioned earlier that I became a comic book fan when it was cool to be a comic book fan. All the kids at school were reading various books, especially Marvel titles. But by ’94 and ’95, as I was getting close to middle school, that all changed. Almost all my classmates stopped talking about comics, and the ones who did were limited only to X-Men and Spider-Man (still popular cartoons at the time). I definitely noticed fewer people at the shop, fewer of those trading cards going around and fewer playground fantasy battles as our favorite characters. By the time I hit sixth grade, the fad was over and letting people know you read comics was once again an invitation for mockery.

Nick: Even as a guy who wasn’t reading, I distinctly remember the books disappearing from the local grocery store. That tipped me off that something must have been wrong, but I never understood until years later when I took an interest in comics history.

Greg: As for the second question, as I mentioned, money was getting tighter and books were getting more expensive. I had grown disillusioned with Batman, Superman and DC Comics in general (Hal Jordan turning evil, AzBats, mullet Superman, etc.).
Then X-Men entered the Age of Apocalypse, a story so labyrinthine and steeped in time travel and the multiverse that it completely lost me almost immediately. I didn’t care about what happened to these characters because, even at age 11 or 12, I knew it was all going back to the status quo when it ended.
In fact, that’s kind of a new revelation for me. I hadn’t ever thought about it like that, but my pre-teen self was just becoming aware of how comic books work — that nothing ever really changes in the long run. It’s kind of like when I first realized how a Ric Flair match worked, or how I felt when I reached the end of Dragon Ball Z.

Nick: Yeah, I remember when I first had to confront that truth…that nothing will ever change, and comics are always kind of in this never-ending cycle. Luckily for me, I was an adult when that happened. I can imagine that being tough for a kid. So, you stopped reading in what, ‘95 or ‘96?

Greg: 1996 brought the two events that ended my fandom for quite a while — Onslaught and the end of the Clone Saga. Onslaught is universally reviled, and rightfully so. Never before and never since has a storyline made me throw up my hands in disgust and say “I’m done with comics.”
Where I’m different from most, though, is that I was heavily invested in the Clone Saga. I loved it. Every nonsensical twist and turn I bought into 100 percent. I completely dug Ben Reilly as the new Spider-Man. “Here,” I thought, “is the change I’ve been waiting for! Finally, something different is happening in comics!” Unlike AzBats, Ben was a likeable character in the same way Pete was, without all the years of continuity and family ties weighing him down. It was kind of neat, especially since Pete was still around.

Then came Spider-Man #75. In one fell swoop, they undid the last few years of story (“Remember when we said Ben was the real Peter? JK!”), replaced Ben, killed him off and TURNED HIM TO DUST, essentially taking away the chance of him ever returning (or so it seemed to 12-year-old Greg). Never before or since has a single issue made me throw my hands up in disgust and say “I’m done with comics.”

You killed Benny, you bastards!
You killed Benny, you bastards!

I didn’t buy another comic for nearly six years.

Nick: Man. That sounds like my reaction to Wrestlemania 23. Of course, my “being done with WWE” lasted all of two weeks instead of six years.

I don’t remember either event in the context of the times, but I have gone back and read chunks of both. The less said about Onslaught, the better. And, as you and I have discussed in our private conversations, the Clone Saga totally worked … up to a point. I think it became so popular that the pressure was on to keep it going even if it meant changing the original creative direction, which led to the stuff you referenced.

So, 1996 comes, and you are done. You’re out. Does the end of reading books also bring the end of interest in superheroes in general? Or do you hold on to the love of the characters in the years ahead? Because in 1998, the superhero-on-film thing kind of took off. Just trying to get an idea of where your head was at before we jump into that.
Me, I was still a pretty big fan of superheroes on television and in movies, but that was as far as it extended. I can’t really think of a time when I was ever convinced to lose interest in the genre as a whole.

Greg: I still loved the characters. Nothing could take that away. I was still a loyal viewer of BTAS, though I wasn’t able to keep up as much when it switched to the Gotham Knights era. My family rented and loved Blade when it came out, and I can’t begin to describe just how excited I was about Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” when it was announced. Sadly, I was pretty content with never buying another comic book, though. Of course, just like comics, real life has a way of rebooting once in a while

That wraps our wordy first edition of Secret Origins. Join us next week for part two, where Nick’s passion for comics begins and mine remains lukewarm.