Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Secret Origins (Part 4)

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 back once again to the world of the Hard-Traveling Fanboys, ladies and gentlemen. This is the latest edition of Secret Origins, and when last we left you, Greg and I had just told you the story of our fateful meeting.

As we said before, we met through the college newspaper back in the fall of 2006 after discovering our mutual love of pro wrestling. Soon, I was coming over to Greg’s house to catch the weekly wrestling shows. But, neither of us were really aware of the other’s love for comics just yet. Greg, what were you reading at the time?

Greg: I was primarily collecting the trade paperback and hardcover collections of Geoff Johns’ recently relaunched Green Lantern series, as well as Jeph Loeb’s ongoing Superman/Batman releases. The campus bookstore stopped selling single-issue comics around that time, so I was strictly limited to buying trades. Still, I’d try my best to keep up with the Batman, Nightwing and Justice League titles. It was certainly a challenge, though. You were pretty heavily getting into single issues, right?

Nick: Yeah, I was following “Civil War” and all of its tie-ins pretty heavily, and mostly enjoying it. I remember some of those trades you had, mainly because you kept some of them in your bathroom. I remember assuming they were Jeremy’s (Greg’s 62-year-old roommate) because I had met him separately and knew he was into comics. In fact, he was partly responsible for us finding out we were both into comics. If I recall correctly, he invited me over for some “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” multiplayer action, and we kind of started talking comics after that.

Greg: Yes, my 75-year-old roomy was quite the video game fanatic, and he also read some comics on the side. Ultimate Alliance was really a remarkable multiplayer game, as we’d often pause the game to discuss storylines, characters or just comics in general. I guess I should also mention that I was sort of keeping up with Infinite Crisis through … completely legal online means, due to not knowing of any comic shops in the general vicinity.

Nick: I think it’s important to reiterate here: Greg’s roommate, Jeremy, is old as hell.

Greg: He’s older than Joe Louis in the Marciano fight.

Frank Sinatra told me that!
Frank Sinatra told me that!

The good news was that the social scene in Troy, Ala., left a lot to be desired, so there was plenty of time to read trades. Valuable, valuable time given my reading speed.

Nick: Yeah, the good thing was that since there wasn’t a lot going on in Troy, it left us a lot of time to read comics and talk comics with one another. When we weren’t watching wrestling and talking wrestling, that is.

The problem was that in the early days of our friendship, our comic preferences were polar opposites. I was a diehard Marvel fanboy who wouldn’t read anything DC other than Batman, and you were a hardcore DC guy who thought the mere existence of Marvel’s Ultimate universe was a stupid gimmick. Thus, some pretty heated debates were had, as I recall.

Greg: Once we became closer friends, it turned into spirited debate, as conversations with Nick Duke often do. I recall your staunch Marvel love conflicting with my DC fanboyism many times. Your shrugs of dismissal toward concepts like Green Lantern were only exceeded by your outright mockery of Superman and, as would later become hilarious, Aquaman. And my rigid opposition to the Ultimate Universe at the time was often the basis of my return fire.

Nick: Yeah, I’ve started to come around on Superman in recent years, or at least on the idea of the character and the ideals he represents if not the character himself. I was, and still am to a certain degree, one of those “Big Blue Boy Scout” guys who thought Superman was uninteresting and unrelatable.

Greg: It must be reiterated that Nick once referred to Arthur Curry in the same condescending tone Jim Ross reserved for the likes of Steve Austin’s opponents circa 1999.

So many questions. What's next? How DO we explain this?
So many questions. What’s next? How DO we explain this?

Nick: Very true. To be fair, though, most of the decade’s good Aquaman stories have only popped up in the last few years.

Greg: And in fairness, I felt the same about any and all of the Ultimate characters, and many of the mainstream Marvel characters at the time. We were like Statler and Waldorf in some ways, I suppose, constantly complaining about the other’s preferred company.

Nick: Exactly. I remember you thinking the Ultimate U was “lazy.” I believe that was my biggest point of contention — that you thought Marvel was only publishing Ultimate universe books because they couldn’t work within the continuity they had written in the 616 universe (Greg’s note: The mainstream Marvel Universe is referred to colloquially as the 616 Universe for nerdy reasons).

Greg: Yes, I viewed it for years as a way of getting out of corners they’d written themselves into in the 616 world. Plus I didn’t like the name of it.

Luckily, you let me borrow your “Civil War” issues so I could keep up with that story, and it grabbed my attention pretty quickly. I was pretty intrigued by it, even if I thought it had some similarities to the circumstances leading into Infinite Crisis (the company’s biggest heroes at ideological odds with one another). In fact, maybe that’s why I was so interested.

Nick: Yeah, I was happy you enjoyed “Civil War,” even if you were hesitant at first since it focused heavily on Iron Man and Captain America, two characters you weren’t very high on at the time. Remember, readers, this was before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark ever existed.

Greg: Indeed, my primary knowledge of Iron Man came from crappy ’90s comics and the mediocre ’90s cartoon. He was a pretty boring character in those, and Cap struck me much the same way Superman struck Nick.

Nick: Oh, man. Pause for a second. That 90s Iron Man cartoon is in no way mediocre.

It’s one of the worst things.

And Internet people were angry at Ben Kingsley's interpretation?
And Internet people were angry at Ben Kingsley’s interpretation?

Give me Spider-Man Unlimited over that garbage any day.

Anyway, as I kept you interested in “Civil War,” you lent me some Batman trades, and it was there that I caught up on most of the last 15 years of Batman stories, such as “No Man’s Land,” “Hush” and others. I thoroughly enjoyed the trades, especially “Hush” and NML, and they served to provide us one of our few points of commonality in our comic tastes.

Greg: And I think it was actually you who convinced me to finally read “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory,” since I was such a huge fan of writer Jeph Loeb’s work on “Hush.” That was a decision I certainly didn’t regret, and both stories soon joined my collection. A love of the Bat definitely united our friends group at the time, as we often traded stories with one another, and I amassed quite a collection of trades along the way.

Nick: This also happened to be around the time that Grant Morrison’s Batman run started, and that certainly united us in our disdain for it. I think that also contributed to my anti-DC bias, as it was the only DC book I was reading monthly at the time and I felt like it was in no way indicative of what my favorite comic character should be.

Greg: It started well enough, but it eventually became obvious that his Batman stories were … not our cup of tea. That kind of ties into a previous column we wrote, because our mentality was certainly similar to some contemporary online fans — it wasn’t “our” Batman, so we felt it shouldn’t be ANYBODY’s Batman! We both still dislike the run, of course, but at least we still got stories from Paul Dini and a few others that fit into our preferred type of Batman stories, which is to say a bit more grounded.

A couple years later, we even recorded a memorable podcast for a school project, in which we discussed our disdain for the likes of Morrison-created Bat-villains Le Bossu and El Sombrero. We were a bit more negative back then, I think.

Batman's greatest villain: The Hat.
Batman’s greatest villain: The Hat.

And by “memorable,” I mean memorable to us only.

Nick: Yeah, I did start pulling Dini’s vastly underrated Detective Comics run soon after, and that we both enjoyed immensely. In addition to the books and games, we also got to discuss the rash of superhero movies that had been released and were upcoming. Mainly, we spent our time arguing over the recently released “Superman Returns” and the upcoming “Spider-Man 3.” We discussed X3 a little, but were pretty much in agreement that it sucked, even if I was a bit less upset by it than you were.

Greg: My intense love for “X2: X-Men United” was at such a level that my anticipation for the third film was at a fever pitch. I was so let down by the movie not meeting my lofty expectations that it created a hatred for the film that, to this day, is probably more than it deserves. But still, how do you screw up the Phoenix Saga when a kids’ cartoon got it right? HOW, DAMNIT?!

Nick: Is what he wants to know!

Greg: As God as my witness, Brett Ratner broke that film in half!

Aw, son of a...
Aw, son of a…

Nick: Yeah, I think your anticipation for X3 was very much akin to mine for “Spider-Man 3.” Topher Grace of “That 70s Show” playing Eddie Brock/Venom? The promise of the Harry Osborn conflict coming full circle? And that gorgeous Sandman CGI stuff that was being shown in the trailers? I was way too pumped for that movie.

In fact, the only reason I saw “Superman Returns” in theaters was to catch the first full-length Spidey 3 trailer. And, while I maintain that it was a boring movie about boring people doing boring things, it did provide us with another point of debate, as you found it to be an acceptable homage to the Donner films and I found it to be an unwatchable pile of steaming crap. (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor withstanding, of course.)

Greg: Indeed, I’ll be “that guy” and admit that I loved “Superman Returns” the first time I watched it. Time, of course, has not been kind to it on subsequent rewatches, but I still think “acceptable” is a good word to describe it. It’s a beautifully shot, mostly well-acted homage to the first two Christopher Reeve movies. It’s dragged down by a lack of originality, unimaginative action scenes (outside a really cool slo-mo bullet deflection) and one of the all-time worst superhero film performances by Kate Bosworth.

Meanwhile, I was already weary of Spidey 3 because of the early rumors of studio interference. I wondered aloud how director Sam Raimi could possibly fit Harry Osborn’s story into the same movie as the Sandman and especially Venom.

Nick: Yeah, I was a bit concerned about Sandman’s involvement, but I had trust in Raimi after the first two movies.

Greg: In case you haven’t gotten it yet, we spent much of our free time debating these topics throughout late 2006, along with our shared frustration with the WWE product at the time and our often hilarious failings with the opposite sex.

Nick: Yeah. Of course for there to be many failings, there would have had to have been attempts, which were few and far between at the time.

Greg: We were definitely more Jimmy Olsen than Bruce Wayne. Minus the whole “gaining random super powers every month” thing, I guess.


Nick: As 2006 ended and the end of my freshman year of college drew near, “Spider-Man 3” drew ever closer. You were still trying to sell me on some DC titles and I was still trying to defend the honor of the Ultimate U. What’s strange is that of all the DC books you tried to sell me on, Green Lantern was the one you probably pitched the least.

Greg: Probably because I anticipated your mockery. “A green ring that gets charged by a literal green lantern? How lame,” Nick said in my projections of future conversations at the time. In fact, you probably said that at some point along the way, but I figured you’d only be interested in street-level characters, given your more gritty tastes in comics and love of Batman. I also knew you didn’t read many cosmic-themed books at Marvel, so I figured GL would be every bit as off-putting to you as stuff like Hawkman or Aquaman. Although really I’ve always thought the GL concept could hook anyone if they gave it a real chance.

Nick: Yeah, I wasn’t high on the concept at the time. But, as fate would have it, I would prove to be wrong on that front. After returning home to south Georgia for the summer, I came upon what I still consider to be one of the greatest single issues I’ve ever read.

That was the Sinestro Corps special that kicked off the Sinestro Corps War, but I’ll go into detail on that next month. Greg, before we close, where were you with GL as Sinestro Corps War got going?

Greg: I think, through sheer luck and a nice release schedule by DC, that I was pretty much caught up on the story. The hardcover of “Wanted: Hal Jordan” was released at the start of the Sinestro Corps War storyline, so I was mostly caught up heading into the summer’s big DC event. My anticipation hadn’t been as high for a superhero event since I was a kid and “The Death of Superman,” “The Clone Saga” and “Knightfall” were in full effect.

Nick: And luckily for you, the single issues were about to find their way into your life. But, that’s a story for next month. Join us in November when we tell the story of our first true mutual comics love — the wonderful Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern.

Greg: But before we leave, we should probably tie up the loose end of Spider-Man 3. Do you remember your feeling walking into and out of the theater?

Nick: Sheer joy and anticipation walking in. Pure, unadulterated disappointment and a deep empty feeling inside walking out.

I mean, it was just a complete misfire on nearly every level. Their interpretation of the effect that the black suit had on Peter was one of the worst things I’ve seen in a comic movie, which is saying a lot.

Greg: My expectations heading in were pretty low, so I didn’t hate it as much as most, but it was definitely an overwhelmingly disappointing experience. Sort of the WrestleMania 27 of superhero movies, to put it in wrestling terms. For you, I’m sure it was more akin to WrestleMania 11.

Nick: Ugh.

The Deadman meets the Human Egg.
The Deadman meets the Human Egg.

Greg: And on that depressing note, we’ll bring an end to this chapter of Secret Origins. Be sure to check in with us next week for Countdown, where we will discuss the five comic book films that most disappointed us!