Up until the early weeks of 1985, I was forced to get my new comics fix from mall bookstores, newsstands, and that one guy at the Reading flea market who set up a spinner rack of new releases next to his longboxes of musty back issues. It made keeping up with favorite titles a frustratingly arbitrary process, as each venue had its own quirks about what books it chose to stock. One place would only stock top-selling Big Two books, another refused to spring for double-sized issues or annuals, and several others simply ordered shit at random and hoped for the best.
This all changed when my buddy-in-fandom Brian Donahue discovered that an honest-to-goodness comic book shop had opened up in Stoneham, one town over from Woburn. It was something we’d long dreamed of and and fantasized about over the picnic table in my backyard — a dedicated funnybook supplier (arguably) within walking/biking distance. We paid our first visit to the place on Martin Luther King Day (twenty six years ago next week, jesus effing christ), and the chillblains on our extremities from the six mile round trip (up and down the steep slopes of the Aberjona River valley) were more than offset by the stack of AWESOME! NEW! COMICS! we hauled back to Woburn.
Even though the shop wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet and was hidden in the side entrance of a retail space which had seen better days (back in 1890, if I had to guess), the place was the stuff of which teenage fanboy dreams were made. On top of having a full selection of current titles and a slew of back issues, it also offered a ten cent price cut on the week’s new releases — sweetened by an addtional discount after I found out that the owner was married to a friend of my parents. (He eventually left comics retail for a better-paying and less stressful career as a corrections officer.)
The timing of Brian’s discovery couldn’t have been more fortuitious when it came to shaping my fandom. It meant that I was able to reliably follow and keep track of watershed events like Crisis on Infinite Earths and the reshaping of the DC Universe, the arrival of Watchmen and Dark Night Returns, and the hype-driven trainwrecks of Secret Wars II, Millennium, the New Universe line. (My first anime fanzine and issue of Dragon Magazine were purchased there, too, marking two other legs of my holistic approach to teenage geekery.)
The store also provided my initial exposure to to the strange and burgeoning would of “alternative” comics publishers. While my raging adolescent fandom for Big Two superhero material meant that the era’s “indie boom” largely passed my by, I did dip my toes in its waters in ways which would significantly shape my tastes down the road. The oversized reprints of EC’s pre-code horror and sci-fi books established an enduring appreciation for the material (and were very popular in study hall, even among peers who would never admit to reading comics), while
Gemstone Gladstone and Blackthorne piqued my interest in Carl Barks and Winsor McKay.
Of all the indie publishers of the time, Eclipse was the one that snagged the biggest share of my paper route money. As snotty as it might sound, their material — and presentation thereof — seemed like it was on a higher plane than than its fellow travellers of the direct market boom. The company’s unapologetic liberal stance played toward my ideological biases and the “grown-up” tone of Cat Yronwode’s editorial essays contrasted sharply with the glad-handing sales pitches I’d been accustomed to in Marvel or DC offerings. (Nothing flatters an insufferably precocious teenager like someone treating them like an “adult.”)
Eclipse also delivered the goods in terms of content that appealed to a kid whose vocabulary began with Adam Strange and ended with X-Men. Both Zot! and the company’s ground-floor foray into translated manga combined surface entertainment with backmatter (essays and letter columns) that expanded my awareness of comics as something bigger than the latest superhero slugfest…
…not that Eclipse was entirely immune to such market-driven silliness.
I can’t recall the exact circumstances that led me to sample the dubious charms of The New Wave, though I’m pretty certain the publisher’s aggressive marketing for the 1986 superteam title played a significant role in my regrettable decision. Not only was the book heralded by a bevy of house ads and “sneak previews” embedded in both DNAgents and Miracleman, but even the publication schedule and pricing were put to promotional purpose. The first eight issues of its thirteen issue run were released bi-weekly with a cover price of fifty cents (at a time when monthly black and white titles by Eclipse rand a buck and change). The strategy may have had underpinnings in fandom’s powerful impulse cortex, but painful hindsight suggests an ill-advised (and eventually abandoned) stunt of the sort that eventually derailed the 1980s indie boom.
It also didn’t help that The New Wave — “America’s #1 Team” according to the hubristic cover blurb — wasn’t that good.
When a sinister corporate-government cabal uses a group of perpetually irritatable scientists to summon a blue-skinned alien superbeing (Tachyon) from a parallel dimension, a confusing chain of events draw together an amoral size-changing spy (Dot), a sassy acrobat (Polestar, as she’s a circus star who wields a pole), the witchity teen daughter of a dead superheroine (Avalon), her telekinetic semi-boyfriend (Impulse), and a polite killer robot (Megabyte) into some vaguely plotted nonsense about the threat of a nuclear war. After resolving that mess (I think?), the group decides to move in with the surly sorceress’s estrange hippy scientist dad and become one big dysfunctional family.
While the framework for The New Wave is clearly inspired by the X-team dynamics established by Chris Claremont, the execution is muddled to the point of becoming dadaistic. Long before “decompression” was coined to describe the process of excessively drawn-out plot arcs, creative team of The New Wave indulged in five issues of repetitive wheel spinning (“…and here are Avalon and Impulse, having the exact same argument they had for the previous four issues!”) under the pretext of setting up the fundamentals. Instead of using Claremont’s model as a springboard for moving forward, they took the writer’s most unfortunately tics then proceeded in a decidedly retrograde motion…
…in other words, “hyper-talky melodrama married to generic Bronze Age superhero fluff, but with suggested sex and cuss words.”
Nor did things improve after the overlong origin arc. Following an obligatory nod to Eclipse’s “shared” universe (because the kidz love the continuity!) with an appearance by the also-ran muck monster known as the Heap, The New Wave ticked away the pages until its inevitable concellation with a series of socially relevant “issues” tales…
Y’know, the “Earth Stories” arc of Zot! has been compared to ABC’s old Afterschool Specials in terms of content and tone. While I can see the validity of that comparison and admit that the material hasn’t entirely held up over the past two decades, it’s also important to consider that the subjects those stories tackled were pretty groundbreaking for that era of comics and that the authenticity of Scott McCloud’s characterizations overrides most of the hokey elements in the plots themselves. The circumstances may feel contrived, but the people involved feel painfully real.
The New Wave‘s foray into the realm of BIG CONTEMPORARY ISSUES, on the other hand, entirely begs the Afterschool Special comparison in the worst possible way. The sentiments may have been noble, but good intentions can’t mitigate embarassingly hyperbolic cautionary tales about coke-snorting midget clowns and death camp imagery employed to make non-controversial statements about the rights of handicapped people.
Don’t get me wrong — I do think that comics can address social issues without compromising its primary purpose as disposable entertainment or lapsing into droning didacticism. I’m just saying it’s really difficult to do so when your mouthpiece is a character whose only consistently defined trait is her dislike of wearing a bra.
The discovery of a comic shop in my area was a crucial event in my developmental geekdom, one that fed my habit as it widened my horizons. A lot of good things came out of my weekly visits to that place…but The New Wave wasn’t one of them.
It’s said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Being an atheist precludes me from such assessments of perdition, but I can confidently state that baker’s dozen issues that comprise The New Wave‘s run are indeed cobblestones on the expressway to the realm of Nobody’s Favorites.