In the fall of 1990, I enrolled as a freshman at UMass Boston. My original plan had been to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but punked out after having some issues with my financial aid package and experiencing a growing unease about relocating to an unfamiliar locale with nothing in the way of a support system.
My guidance counselor was visibly disappointed my change of heart, but it turned out to be the right decision. The idea of going to an out-of-state college was a notion impressed upon me by others, not something I particularly desired. UMass Boston had a rep for being a safety school and haven for “fifth-chancers,” but it was exactly what I needed at that part of my life. As a commuter college, it didn’t feel much different than being in high school…apart from the fact that the median age for its students at the time was in the vicinity of twenty-five years old.
Even with that shallow adjustment curve, it took a while before I was able to adapt to UMB’s social culture. I’d made a couple of friends during orientation (including a dude I swear ended up playing drums for The Dents fifteen years later), but most of my between-class time for the first half of the semester was spent sitting on a couch by myself in one of the student lounges.
I longed for some form of community, but I had no idea where to find it until I stumbled across an amateur hour Sharpie-scrawled flyer seeking members for a “Comics Connection” club. The open house for the club was held on the fourth floor of Wheatley Hall, in the warren of offices set aside for registered student organizations. I was the only person who showed up, which meant I got to listen to the club’s would-be founder expound at length about his ambitious plans for fanzines and mini-conventions and other non-starter pipe dreams.
It would’ve been a complete waste of time, save for the arrival of a Student Life trusty checking to see when the meeting would be over. The trusty was one of those “sophisticate” geeks –high Seventies professorial fashion and a Gandalf pipe draped over a core of condescending smarm — that I’ve never been particularly fond of, but he was effusive to me as he was dismossive of Mr. Comics Connection.
“Hey, if you like comics and stuff, I got some people you ought to meet” he said as he guided me down the hall, where introduced me to the members of the UMB’s Sci-Fi Club. They were a pretty representative cross-section of hardcore geekdom circa 1990 — neckbearded lifers, preening SCA elitists, faculty brat freaks, industrial-goths, and general issue Rush-loving fanboys. All of them were far more committed to the lifestyle than I was, but that (mostly, sorta) ended up being a positive thing, especially when it came to funnybook fandom.
It was from them I first heard about Yummy Fur and Brat Pack, was able to borrow a copy of Milligan & McCarthy’s Skin, read issues of Toxic, and felt inspired to give Nexus and Grimjack a shot. Much of it wasn’t really up my alley, but learning about it and — more importantly — the places around town where such stuff was available was an education more invaluable than anything I’d been picking up in my actual college classes.
My weekly trips to New England Comics with my father and brother continued through most of this era, though they started to trail off during summer of 1991. I was running a Warhammer Fantasy RPG campaign at the time, and it was popular enough that we kept it going through the intercession. The group met on Friday afternoons, and lot of us would hop onto the subway and head out to the original Newbury Comics store in the Back Bay after the session concluded. It was just as easy to pick up my new releases at that point as it was to listen to my dad’s complaints about getting dragged to NEC the following day, so I started buying most of my comics there.
(It also helped that Newbury Comics still had a pretty decent selection of import punk and Oi records in stock, which catered to my other fan obsession at the time.)
The list of books I followed hadn’t changed much since my high school days: Zot, Legion of Super-Heroes, the two Justice League monthlies, and a smattering of manga titles. Baker Street eventually joined the roster, after much internal debate over whether it was an ideologically suspect attempt at scene-biting, as did The Last American miniseries.
This was also the era of World’s Worst Comics, which spurred an interest in back issue oddities picked up (along with a lot of cheap LSH and DC Comics Presents issues) at a short-lived shop (now an upholstery place) across the corner of Swanton and Main in Winchester or by Lil Bro on my behalf during his regular convention visits.
Though I didn’t follow any of the “hot” titles of that era, I wasn’t ignorant of them either. One of the dudes in my Warhammer group was a very Zen army vet who would buy a substantial stack of Lee/Liefeld/McFarlane each Friday, then hand Lil Bro or me the bag because “he wouldn’t have time to read them until after the weekend.” It didn’t make much sense to me, but it did give me a chance to experience the immediate pre-Image Era in all its underwritten, crosshatched insanity.
It wasn’t anything I would’ve followed on my own dime, but I won’t deny that — at the time, with no foreknowledge of what was to come — there was something vibrant and exciting going on amidst the garish stupidity of it all. The stuff had style, a potent package of semiotic triggers directly wired to the part of the adolescent psyche that spent countless hours contemplating a billion variants of Not-Punisher/Not-Batman/Not-Wolverine/Not-Your-Favorite-GI-Joe-Figure. I was — fortunately — a couple of years too old for it to achieve maximum effect, but I certainly felt the buzz of that over-accessorized contact high.
My Warhammer campaign concluded during the final week of the summer intersession. This phase of my comics fandom would hang on for a slightly longer stretch.
(The events that led to my Warhammer campaign and status as Sci-Fi Club Big Shot are depicted in the story the magificent Mathew Digges and I did for the Death Saves comic anthology. The hustle is real, folks.)