The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

A column article by: Zack Davisson

We all remember our first time, don't we?

Maybe it wasn't the best we ever had, and maybe our own memory makes it sweeter, but there was something about that first time that was special. Memorable. Lingering. The blushing cheeks, the quickening pulse, the cutest girl you have ever seen… As the years go by, we get more experienced, we mature, we seek out new and different levels of excitement with a more layered and nuanced performance. But there will always be a part of us that looks back onto the innocence of our first time and that thrilling introduction to an unknown world.

My own first time was X-Men #174.

Of course, I was talking about my first comic book! Mind out of the gutter, folks!

It was 1983, when an eleven year old boy rode his red plastic skateboard down to the local 7-11. The coins that jingled in his pocket promised a Big Wheel ice cream sandwich and maybe a cold soda to bring relief from the hot California sun, but something on the cheap wire spinner rack caught his eye.

So, instead of heading to the freezer and soda isle, he plopped down on the sticky floor of the convenience store and cracked open a thin paper periodical that proceeded to swallow him whole, stirring strange emotions and quickening his pulse. He walked out of that 7-11 a little dazed and confused, soda-less and ice cream-less, sixty cents poorer and carrying an innocuous brown paper bag inside of which was the beginning of a dangerous habit that would consume his life for years to come. Again, not that kind of periodical, and you should all be ashamed!

Good times.

Even with all the nostalgia involved, I don't remember exactly what it was that made me grab that particular issue from all the other comics on the spinner rack. (Do you remember why you grabbed your first comic?) There was nothing special about the cover; a single figure, highlighted in neutral colors of brown, yellow and orange, holds out his hand in which two other figures can be seen in something like a fiery crystal ball. Not exactly exciting or eye-catching. Nothing anyone would mistake for a "classic cover."

I certainly didn't recognize the characters. Spider-Man, Superman, The Hulk, Wonder Woman and Shazam!: these I knew from their respective TV shows, but the summer of ‘83 was long before the X-Men had any sort of media coverage. They weren't exactly a household name. The first X-Men cartoon wouldn't debut until nine years later in 1992, by which time, I was already a dedicated enough fan to talk shit about it and how it wasn't the "real" X-Men. (Come on now…who was that "Morph" guy anyways?) The 2000 live-action film that made them famous enough that even your grandmother would know them was even further away.

But I picked it up anyway.

The story of X-Men #174 was what had hooked me. It was all about the story. The brief glances I stole from the comic on the floor of the 7-11 were enough to tell me that I needed to take it home, to get involved in this strange and mysterious world.

That issue wasn't packed with what eleven year old boys are usually thought to like. There were no superhero battles, no panels bursting with cinematic excitement; in fact there was no fighting whatsoever. Basically a bridging issue between major story arcs, the comic featured a sequence of short vignettes of personal stories, of love and loss and remembrance. It felt mature, somehow. These were emotional stories, with far more depth than I had seen on a Spider-Man cartoon.

A short hairy man in a brown and orange suit speaking Japanese returned an "honor sword" to a woman of which he was no longer worthy. Another man with red sunglasses worried about his new red-haired fiancé. A strange blue man cared for a bed-ridden woman, whose hair was striped like a skunk, telling the story of the mysterious Jean Grey. A cute-as-hell young girl planted a kiss on some giant muscle-bound guy after walking him through the ceiling. (I had an instant crush on Kitty Pryde, by the way. The way she was drawn, with those blushing cheeks…)

Each story offered a tantalizing glimpse of something deeper and bigger. Who was Jean Grey? Why did it matter that Storm's attic was no longer full of plants? How did Wolverine lose the love of the Lady Mariko? Questions questions questions…and remember, there were no trade paperbacks, no "graphic novels" back then. It took me quite some time to track down those back issues and complete the story. "X-Men #173" had only been sitting in that same spinner rack a few weeks earlier, but it was much longer before I had it in my hand.

So that was how it all began for me.

Which is why I was thrilled when I checked the schedule for the 2009 Emerald City Con here in Seattle and saw that Paul Smith was on the guest list. You see, Paul Smith had drawn X-Men #174. He had taken pencil in hand and sketched the blushing cheeks of Kitty Pryde which had lured me forever into the world of comics.

His run on the X-Men hadn't been long. He only did about ten issues, spanning #165-#175 from 1982-1983, but I personally consider him one of the great X-Men artists, up there with John Byrne and Jim Lee. Paul is probably better known for his work on D.C.'s The Golden Age and the Image title Leave it to Chance, which are indeed phenomenal comics, both of which were done with writer James Robinson. But for me, he is the X-Men.

So I dug my battered old copy of X-Men #174 out of my collection and dutifully stood in line to get it signed by "the man" himself. Most people in line had copies of The Golden Age, and I probably could have brought a stack of stuff for him to sign. But this was personal, and I didn't want to dilute the moment. (I had vague intentions of asking him for a quick Kitty Pryde sketch for me, but when I saw how much he was charging for drawings, I quickly gave up that thought. I don't begrudge the man his fee, but my budget just didn't allow for it.)

Still, I was satisfied: A face-to-face moment with me, my very first comic book, and the guy who drew it.

The quickening pulse, the blushing cheeks…

It's all about timing right? Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. In my case, the very second I stepped up to the front of the line to present my old comic, some fuzzy-headed guy from Dark Horse just breezed on up and stepped in front of the line easy as you please. There to pitch Paul on some new project, he started doing a fast-talk presentation, name-dropping Grant Morrison, and trying to sell Paul on "the buzz." It was hot. It was happening. Certainly, Paul wasn't too busy, right?

Paul's response went something like this:

I'll tell you what I tell anyone who wants me to work for them: bring me a story I can't refuse. Bring me a story so good, it is impossible to turn down. "It was the Best of Times, it was the Worst of Times." "It was a dark and stormy night." Bring me something I would want to read, and he would want to read (pointing at me!)

Just don't bring me any movie script. "No page 1, panel 1, upshot on Wolverine." Bring me a story, not a breakdown. I have over thirty years experience doing this, turning stories into art. You hire me because you don't know how to do it. So don't insult me with panels and camera angles! I'll just chuck it in the trash. Bring me that story, and then we can talk!

It was an inspired rant. It was beautiful to see. Paul Smith was an absolute rock star, and the Dark Horse guy visibly shrank before the onslaught, his fuzzy hair turning limp along with his ego. Mr. Dark Horse tried to interject, "Not even page numbers?" "Page numbers would be OK, right?" But Paul just carried on, gesticulating wildly, "No! Bring me a story!" This was a man full of passion and energy, dedicated to storytelling and his art and confident in his ability. He was, he proved again to me, the man.

The Dark Horse guy eventually backed away, visibly shaken, promising to bring Paul his story. I hope he does.

It was a great moment, and one of the reasons why I love going to conventions. Far too often, interaction with a favorite creator is little more than some awkward mumbling and some quick scribbling on books. After all, what can you say? You are complete strangers. But every now and then, you get something special, some memory that becomes as important as the comic itself. I'm glad it was with this artist, and I'm glad it was with this comic. X-Men #174 got just that much little more special to me.

And while I didn't get my Kitty Pryde drawing, after hearing that this was my first-ever comic book, Paul Smith was very kind and, next to his signature (and unasked for), he sketched me a little Lockheed the Dragon, right there, on my first book.

Good times.

Paul Smith's run on the X-Men is partially collected in the trade paperback X-Men: From The Ashes, featuring issues #168-176.

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