Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Secret Origins (Part 3)

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: The Place to Be Nation’s own pseudo-dynamic duo is back for another peek into our collective past in Secret Origins. We hope you enjoyed the first two parts of our tale, in which we each discovered the colorful world of comics and then took radically different paths toward our eventual adult fandom. Last month, we ended on a bit of a cliffhanger. I’d just reconnected to the comic book world through Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s famous “Batman: Hush” story, while Nick had become addicted to the trade paperback collections of Ultimate Spider-Man. As we approached the middle part of the first decade of the new millennium, momentum was leading both of us toward a deeper obsession with the medium and, surprisingly, a long-lasting friendship.

Nick: That’s right. When last we left you, Greg had just come back to the world of comics with Hush. Obviously, Hush drew you in, but did you jump right back into other non-Batman monthly books or did that take a while longer?

Greg: Well, I stuck with Batman, but I did add one monthly book. When Loeb finished off “Hush,” he started a new title: Superman/Batman. I couldn’t resist picking that book up whenever it’d show up at the campus bookstore, so I kept up with that and a pretty cool Brian Azzarello/Eduardo Risso run on Batman. I was trucking along as an undergraduate college student, so two books were probably the most I could handle at the time anyway. I believe you were still strictly trade waiting at this point, right?


Nick: As of 2002, yes. I was in the process of getting caught up on Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, and was fully caught up on Ultimate Spider-Man. Strangely enough, I never felt the need to catch up on Ultimate Fantastic Four. So, I would mostly trade wait because the town closest to us didn’t have a comic shop, but whenever my parents and I would go out of town, I would try and stop at a local comic shop just to look around. The excursions were usually pretty intimidating, because there would be my three Ultimate universe books on the stands alongside hundreds of titles that I felt I would be utterly lost if I tried to read.

Greg: So at what point did things begin to change for you? I was pretty much stuck in a holding pattern of the monthly Batman book and alternating between single Superman/Batman issues and the trades for a couple years.

Nick: Well, once I was caught up on both Ultimate Spidey and Ultimate X-Men, I was able to convince my parents to buy me a mail order subscription to the two books. That was probably around 2004 and for the first year, things were great. Around 2005, however, books would occasionally show up a month late or be damaged or sometimes not show up at all. So, in 2006, once the subscription was up, we didn’t renew and I was back to trade waiting.

Greg: The mail order subscription is a magical part of comics’ past and present that has always eluded me. As a child, it seemed like the coolest thing in the world — comics sent to me, discounted, every month? Too good to be true! But I never worked up the nerve to ask my parents to sign me up. To this day, I debate trying a subscription.

Nick: Subscriptions are fantastic when they deliver what they advertise. However, when they don’t, they’re a complete ripoff. I’d rather pay 75 cents more for each book and be guaranteed it’ll be in good condition than risk it being damaged in the mail.

Anyway, as you’ll attest, one of the hardest things is to go from trade waiting to buying single issues and then trying to trade wait again. I graduated from high school in May 2006, and after returning from my senior trip, my friends and I made a trip to the theater for the highly anticipated X-Men: The Last Stand. While the movie was … disappointing, something happened that day that put me on the path to permanently buying single issues.

It should have been so good.
It should have been so good.

Before the actual trailers started, there was an advertisement on the screen for a comic shop in Enterprise, Alabama, just about 20 or 25 minutes from Dothan, where I spent a lot of my free time. So, after the movie, me and a couple of my friends piled into my car and drove to the comic store on a Saturday afternoon. I still felt overwhelmed by the amount of books on the shelf, but I bought a few issues of Ultimate stuff I was missing and started making the trip monthly.

Greg: And thus … an addiction was born.

Nick: Well, kind of. It actually wasn’t until July that the addiction really got underway.

Greg: Well, to backtrack a little bit, 2005 was probably the most vital year to my renewed interest in comics.

Nick: And what happened that year? I know now it was around the time of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern relaunch, but I’m not sure if you were reading that from the start.

Greg: In late 2004, I began seeing advertisements in select issues of the two books I was reading for something called “Rebirth” with a Green Lantern logo behind the text. Now, I had a passing familiarity with the Green Lantern concept as well as Kyle Rayner. I’d started reading GL shortly before “Emerald Twilight,” and I found Kyle Rayner so uninteresting that I quickly abandoned ship once he came aboard. I’d picked up select issues over the years, and I just never found Kyle to be as unique and heroic as Hal. I’d long wanted Hal and the Green Lantern Corps to be brought back, but I thought it impossible, one of those fanboy dreams that never come true. I mean, I wasn’t a HUGE Hal fan, but it just seemed “right” for him to be a Green Lantern, and the Corps was the main appealing aspect of the mythos.

After doing a few Internet searches, I quickly learned that “Rebirth” was to be the return of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, after a forgettable run as the Spectre.

Hal was one of those characters I’d grown to love more in death than in life, much like Jason Todd. I hadn’t read too many of Hal’s adventures, but as ’90s-tastic as Kyle often was, Hal became even greater. So, I figured, I’ve got to give this story a shot and see if whoever these creators are can pull off something so massive in scope. I mean, I liked the guy, but Hal murdered dozens of people as Parallax. Still, I bought the first issue with cautious excitement.

I bought the first issue, and it stands as one of my favorite single issues of all time. In the scope of one issue, I 100 percent believed in Hal Jordan, I 100 percent believed in the Green Lantern concept, and I even began to grudgingly like Kyle Rayner. Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver blew me away, and I subsequently bought each issue of the miniseries. It also opened my eyes to the DC Universe as a whole — characters I’d rarely considered like Green Arrow and the other members of the Justice League.

The Corps reborn.
The Corps reborn.

Nick: Did you feel like you had lost anything in the process since you hadn’t been a longtime GL reader? Stuff like Hal becoming the Spectre and Oa being rebuilt would have happened while you were away from comics.

Greg: Honestly, I didn’t feel like I’d missed much. Johns did a great job in that first issue of catching readers up, plus I’d read enough random issues over the years (and Wikipedia entries) to understand the gist — Kyle was the one and only Green Lantern, used his power as Ion to reignite Oa and recreate the Guardians, and Hal was floating around as the spirit of vengeance.

Nick: With limited access to single issues, were you able to get Johns’ monthly GL series as it was released, or were you stuck trade waiting on it?

Greg: The university bookstore unfortunately never carried the relaunched Green Lantern series, a bizarre choice since it did carry “Rebirth.” So I patiently waited until 2006 to begin my Green Lantern trade collection, but it was totally worth it. And along the way, I followed the events leading into the companywide crossover “Infinite Crisis,” which remains my favorite universe-wide crossover event. Thanks to that story, I began buying trades related to the JLA, Superman, Green Arrow and other important DC figures.

Nick's favorite moment in all of Infinite Crisis
Nick’s favorite moment in all of Infinite Crisis

Sadly, the bookstore soon stopped carrying single issues at all, so I became strictly a trade waiter, just like you.

Nick: By summer 2006, though, I moved on from trade waiting. As we said earlier, 2006 was an important year for my comic-reading habits. That July, I walked into the shop and saw posters for Marvel’s big upcoming event, Civil War. I knew it wasn’t an Ultimate book, but the poster alone intrigued me. I asked the shop owner about the story that was coming up, and he told me about it. I told him it sounded intriguing, but that I wasn’t sure I’d understand the stories. On his suggestion, I picked up some of the books that had been billed as “Road to Civil War” and took them home with me. I read them, mostly understood them and loved them. I went back the next weekend and made my first foray into the 616 Marvel Universe. In a decision that can only be described as naive, I not only started a pull list with Civil War on it, but also decided I wanted to read everything. As in every single tie-in.

The battle lines of Civil War.
The battle lines of Civil War.

Greg: Yikes! Sadly, I can mostly relate, as I bought the Infinite Crisis-related trades. Still, that had to be a pretty extensive list, much more expansive than my trade collection.

Nick: And for the first few months, it was great. I read and enjoyed pretty much every book. Then, as the storyline neared its conclusion and books like Blade, Ghost Rider and Heroes for Hire received tie-in issues, I started to realize that I had been duped somewhat by Marvel’s promises of tie-ins mattering. But, before I could get too angry, The Initiative was announced as Marvel’s follow-up story and I signed up for all those tie-ins as well, It wasn’t until about a year of buying single issues that I realized that the industry was in a never-ending cycle of “event” books that came with unnecessary tie-ins. But, that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is that the Ultimate books had done a good enough job of making me understand who each character was at their core that the 616 counterparts felt familiar to me and I could pick up the differences and details through context clues and Internet research. At that point, I was hooked fully on monthly books, namely the Avengers, Spider-Man and Thor titles, in addition to my usual line of Ultimate books.

Greg: And it suddenly strikes me for the first time since we’ve known each other, in another bit of synchronicity — we were both suckered in and hooked by Big Events from opposing companies. Infinite Crisis was out not long before Civil War. Both events were massively successful, and the young, na├»ve Hard-Traveling Fanboys were evidently the target audience.

Nick: So, as summer 2006 ended, I was a recent addition to the ranks of the single issue buyers. And, in fall 2006, I left home for classes at Troy University in Troy, Alabama.

Greg: I, meanwhile, had just graduated from Troy and had no idea what I wanted to do with my journalism degree. When the school offered me a full scholarship just to come back and take over as co-editor of the student newspaper, I jumped at the opportunity. A chance to stay in my comfort zone, hang out with my friends, take some extra classes and at no cost — how could I resist? So, as we did every fall semester, we at the Tropolitan (said newspaper) began preparing for the pre-semester meeting for the paper’s incoming staff. That included advertising and attending the university’s freshman orientation. Most of the staff had some newspaper experience, but we also got a wave of eager freshmen looking to get some journalistic experience.

On the day of that first Trop meeting, I decided I wanted to create a relaxed environment and let my staff know the general feel of our zany office. So, sporting an oversized foam cowboy hat (it’s funny, you see, because it’s … it’s bigger than a normal hat), I began by reciting from memory Dr. Evil’s origin from “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”

Turd Ferguson, it's a funny name.
Turd Ferguson, it’s a funny name.

Nick: I meanwhile, began that day by putting on my trusty Triple H t-shirt, as I was a fan of the King of Kings at the time.

Give me a break. In 2006, the main event choices were HHH or John Cena. I stand by my decision.
Give me a break. In 2006, the main event choices were HHH or John Cena. I stand by my decision.

Greg: Imagine my surprise when, in mid-monologue, I noticed a freshman sitting at a desk and wearing a Triple H shirt. “Could it be?” I secretly mused, still regaling the editors and writers with tales of my father’s general malaise. “A wrestling fan? Here? Sure, he likes Triple H, but still!”

So I tucked away that knowledge, finished my spiel, let my co-editor handle the actual important stuff, and stepped outside for a phone call.

Nick: To his mother.

Greg: That’s right. Mama Phillips was once a diehard wrestling fan and still watched on occasion, and she and I began a rather normal (at the time) discussion of the happenings of Monday Night Raw and the general direction of World Wrestling Entertainment (“When’s The Rock going to come back?” she’d often ask).

Nick: Meanwhile, I moved on from the meeting into the computer lab to do important homework. And by important homework, I mean look read wrestling news sites online and check Facebook.

Greg: I believe I was in the midst of explaining to my mom that she needed to give the show a shot (during perhaps one of the most boring eras in company history) when Nick overheard my loud proclamations.

Nick: Yeah, I’m pretty sure everyone in the room heard you, but I interrupted you to ask if you were a wrestling fan. Both of us were definitely using our powers of perception that day.

And, once he wrapped up his conversation, we talked about wrestling for a while. Between that and us working on the school paper together, it served as the start of a long and….odorous relationship.

Greg: It’s kind of weird how quickly we hit it off. Within a week, I think, he was coming over to the house I shared with a bunch of people and watching Raw, ECW and occasionally Smackdown, in addition to engaging in some video game hijinks.

Nick: Yep. Wrestling and video games formed the foundation of our relationship, but it was video games that led to us finding out we were both into comics. Next month, we’ll talk about how we first began to incorporate comics into our friendship and the fierce debates we used to have in regards to our preference in comics publishers.