All posts by Rocko

Welcome To The Con: A Starter Guide


This article originally appeared in Louisville’s Voice Tribune newspaper.

You might be wondering if you’re ready to make the step into geekdom that is attending a comic convention like Wizard World. Maybe you’re an avid watcher of the superhero movies and TV shows, but new to the geek scene. Maybe you’re an old-school comic collector who, somewhere in that Bermuda Triangle period between middle school and high school, lost interest. Maybe you’re ready to reengage. Maybe you’re like I used to be: a closeted fan.

I was the guy who followed the sagas and storylines of the comic book industry both on the paneled pages and in the industry behind-the-scenes, thrilling at the writing and artwork of my favorite creators, but almost never spoke to another human being about it. For me, attending a con for the first time just a scant few years ago was a declaration of allegiance to a medium and art form that I’ve always loved, to answer in the affirmative a question I’d danced around all my adult life: “Do you like comics?” I would often demure, but from the time I can remember laying eyes on anything, starting with the four color Sunday Funnies, I remember comics. They’ve been a part of my life ever since, and it’s such a joy to find that they’re as much a part of the lives of others as they are my own, something I never knew until I showed my face to my brothers and sisters at a convention (or “con,” for those in the know). I felt sorry that I had missed out for so long by being uptight and “too cool for school,” because the kids at the cons were having a blast all along.

You will see people in amazing homemade costumes acting out fantasies. You will see old friends in their element, catching up. You will see new friends bonding over their common interests. You will see the thrill of the hunt as enthusiasts track down key issues missing from their collection, just to find out exactly how Spider-man survived that fall at the hands of Doctor Octopus way back in that issue from the seventies that they missed. You will see the people who create the comics, smiling and shaking hands with fans for whom they might as well be the most admirable people alive, like movie stars or athletes. In fact, you’ll also see movie stars and athletes, like “Airplane”’s Robert Hayes and WWE Superstar Randy Orton.

Conventions are now all the rage, moving from something that was just a few years ago on the fringe of society to a major cog in the machine that is the entertainment industry. Now it’s nouveau-hip to be a fan, absolutely cutting edge. Just an example: if you were into “The Walking Dead,” the comic from Image Studios, before “The Walking Dead,” the top-rated show on AMC, you were fully engaged and aware of a massive pop cultural force literally years before anyone else. Wherever you are on the spectrum, take pride. Even if your geek obsession isn’t ready for prime time, it might soon be. Come to the place where you will find your brethren and get ready to have a good time with your crowd – you’re so out, you’re in!

The Mighty Marvel Manner!


It’s funny how things that come to you as a child completely randomly can shape your life. I was made a Marvel fan forever as a result of a few seeds planted in my youth by odd Dollar General Store knickknacks like a plastic Hulk riding a motorcycle, another Hulk that did acrobatics at a push button pressure point, a Spider-man with a parachute, a box of Spider-man caps for use in any cap gun, some Fantastic Four party favors.  These ill conceived, non comic canon pieces of odd marketing were some of my first possessions, and they ignited my imagination the way only the mind of a young child can be fired up. By the time I met the Amazing Spider-man himself at K-Mart, I was so indoctrinated that I thought I myself was a superhero, just there fulfilling my Team-Up destiny, trying to keep Icee Bear out of the picture.

By the time I got my hands on actual Marvel Comics, I found that they were every bit as wild and untamed as I thought they had to be. I’m fully aware of all the corporate maneuvering behind the scenes, especially after reading Sean Howe’s tremendous Marvel Comics: the Untold Story,  but the fact is, on most days I only see the characters of mad creators running ram-shod through  a fantastic universe.  I’m no blind fan; I’m not saying that every single issue of every single series is a winner, but pound for pound, I think Marvel is the greatest comic book publication house of them all.

“Marvel” to me is completely synonymous with “fun.”  So from the proud owner of a No-Prize:

Make Mine Marvel!

“Read The NEW GODS- As They Really Are!”


To put it simply, it’s impossible to imagine comic books existing in their modern form without Jack Kirby. it’s hard to fathom what Marvel Comics at their inception and heyday might’ve been like without Jack drawing most of the books, stretching imagination to it’s limits while establishing a house style. During the celebrated Marvel Age of the 1960′s,  Kirby, a workhorse of uncanny proportions, produced more books a month than most creators do in a year today.

So much so that he was often and easily taken for granted, and stretched thin to the point that the work he’s most recognized for ironically isn’t really his best work. As much as I love his 100 issue marathon run on Fantastic Four, his truly epic Thor issues, wall to wall action in Avengers, and all the other Marvel Comics he brought to life and characters he created, it was his seventies leap to DC Comics that brought his truest vision to paper. Foreseeing the trade paperback market of today, Jack knew that comic fandom was strong enough that at some point, the slowly rotting newsprint of floppy comics would give way to more permanent reprint collections, and started writing his New Gods saga for an eventual collection and larger audience one day. Basically a story of generational struggle told with cosmically Shakespearean characters, Jack’s new world was launched initially in the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, because when the heads at DC told him he could have any book, he only wanted to take on one where it wouldn’t result in anyone else losing their jobs.


Unfortunately, seventies DC Comics wasn’t the time or place for the innovations in deeply personal and heady comics he was making, and the three books that made up the continuing story were canceled after about a year. Although DC would go on to utilize the characters he created there to great success, especially villainous patriarch Darkseid, the saga Jack intended to tell with a beginning, middle, and end was cut short.

Never one to be discouraged, Jack went ahead and kept on at DC for awhile creating more characters in Demon and Kamandi, but he ended up returning to Marvel and getting carte blanche doing story and art on Captain America, which became a trippy and occasionally existential journey into madness. For the first time in a very long time, Jack was back home, on perhaps the strongest character that he created,  and his imagination really ran wild.


These were the first Kirby books I saw as a young kid, and I couldn’t completely make heads or tails of them. They’re challenging. You have to sit with them for awhile. In my case, it took decades to fully get my head around them. There’s a certain vibe to the work that he did there, the images are hypnotic and explosive. The sensibility is grandiose, but there’s such a grit to what he did. Like all the best tastes, Kirby in this period is an acquired one.


In the mid-eighties, Jack returned to DC to finish his New Gods story. The initial issues were reprinted on fine, thick Baxter Paper, the first issue of the compilation series featured the great line “READ THE NEW GODS- AS THEY REALLY ARE!” a number of writers and artists had their way with the New Gods and continue to do so, a fact of commercially owned characters Jack was well aware of, but stung with Darkseid and company, as the plan had been that they would all be Kirby from start to finish.

In Hunger Dogs, the fated final confrontation between Darkseid and his son Orion transpired, and ended in a way that no one had predicted. It’s not a beloved piece of work by most, but it is by me. Jack’s art takes on almost a Picasso like post-impressionistic tone, and the story told is ultimately one about moving past trauma and a thirst for getting even. This wasn’t what most people were expecting or desired, but to me, it was perfect. The final fate of Darkseid was explored in the Super Powers comic, oddly enough a toy line tie-in, told in two miniseries soon after. Usually dismissed offhand as “non-continuity,” it’s hard to imagine Jack gave a damn what the book was called when he drew it, or what editorial’s larger plan for how it related to their other books was.

gayKirby was a huge part of what made Marvel Comics what it was…but as it turns out, my favorite work of his was at DC.

Kids Have Favorite Characters, Adults Have Favorite Creators

ImageShe can tell that I collect X-Men comics? It’s like she really knows me!

A key curiosity of decades old comic characters that are the properties of corporations is that many chefs have been in an ocean of soup, and across that ocean many individual styles have contributed ounces to a whole. Some are inevitably much better than others.

The first point that I recall becoming fully cognoscente of the fact that comics don’t just magically appear fully formed for perusal was Sensational She-Hulk #1, cover dated May, 1989. Priced at a buck fifty when everything else was a mere three quarters, I could tell that there was something different right away. The quality of the paper was a bit higher, and John Byrne’s art had a certain polish that was otherwise lacking on that Kroger Grocery shelf. There was certainly something to She-Hulk that was compelling to my fourth grade mind that I wasn’t yet able to put my finger on. So to speak.

She-Hulk is a pretty corny character as devised, quite possibly the worst of the “girl counterparts” we first saw with Mary Marvel in the 40′s. Cynics would see them as a quick and easy way to cash in on a trendy brand, and they would be correct. What Byrne did with the book was turn the convention on its ear; She-Hulk -usually just referred to by her civilian name of Jennifer Walters- became a lame character in a comic book who knew she was a lame character in a comic book, constantly interacting with both the writer/artist and readers. The fourth wall was eliminated, and Jen would pull stunts like ripping holes in panels and taking shortcuts through ad pages. the result was sublime, I had never seen anything like it. I was immediately smitten.

The fun lasted for 8 months, until one sad day at the grocery when She-Hulk suddenly looked quite different. Byrne, ever an egotist, left the book in a dispute about something or other with editorial. I kept buying it anyway, as well as back issues of the previous Savage She-Hulk series from the 70′s, chasing a dragon that I never recaptured. It took awhile, but I eventually learned my lesson- from Byrne on She-Hulk to CC Beck on Captain Marvel to Alan Davis on Captain Britain, it’s the creator that makes the character worth caring about, never the other way around. Every issue of the new Sensational She-Hulk left me colder, but when Byrne got cooking on West Coast Avengers and Namor, I found a new center of gravity on the subject.

More often than not, I can tell if I’m going to get any joy from interacting with fellow genre fans by how well they understand this truth that I find to be self evident. Much of it has to do with whether or not one ever gravitated towards obscure characters, since it’s not often the publishers let hacks take a crack at the valuable big name properties. The best talent was always lining up for the popular, top selling titles, the Amazing Spider-man bread. Even so, inevitably there’s going to be a peak and then a bleak period for you, and it’s foolish to pass up the next work of the creators you like in favor of devotion to imaginary people.

You can come debate this with me at the message board.

You can read more from me at

Back to the Comics


This David Aja page from 2012′s Hawkeye #2 provides a good example of art that, to it’s credit, could never quite be adapted into any other medium.

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s been great.

It’s great to not avoid conversations about Captain America with people that don’t have a y chromosome. It’s great that my mom wanted to see The Avengers on Mother’s Day, and that the theater was packed, and that after it was over I could point at the screen and say “That’s what I’ve been so nuts about all my life.” It’s great that kids probably aren’t facing derision at school now for being into Iron Man. It’s great that summer blockbuster movies are now a lot less trite and stupid than they used to be. It’s great that characters from comics are now the center of the entertainment universe and it’s great that Stan Lee lived to see it. It’s great that the filmmakers started to take comics seriously.

What’s not so great is that there’s a real danger that, now that these characters have become so famous that they’re more accurately described as properties, they have eclipsed the medium they were born in, are best in, and belong in the most. Comic books themselves are dangerously close to extinction. Comic conventions have been co-opted by film and television personalities and gone from the place a cult following of the faithful go for sanctuary and celebration to the focal point for studios to promote sequels, tie-ins, and merchandise. What for some is a lifestyle is for many a fad, and for still more it’s an opportunity to cash in.

The funny thing about being a comic book fan is that you’re actually saying very little about a person when you call them that. Comic books are an entire medium. You might be a music fan or a movie fan or, one that clunks really hard since just about everyone watches sometimes, a TV fan. But those are all just laughably broad. For every variety of thing that you will see on television, there’s that many styles of comics. Some people like Honey Boo, some like Mad Men.

Now admittedly, the majority of comic books from the last 50 years or so are based firmly in the superhero genre, and that’s what these movies are mining. Even so, there’s countless approaches to that aspect of the art form, and the truly devoted are the connoisseurs. My kind of fan doesn’t have favorite characters- they have favorite creators.

Comic writers tell stories in a serialized format unlike any other in it’s scope and speed, and the true draftsmen and visionaries of comic art bring us work that can only be beheld on the printed page. The beauty of the layout, the way the panels compliment each other, there’s nothing else like it. Where actors and their agents insist that the masked characters they’re playing have to go without them for most of the movie (and on the poster and DVD covers), where unwieldy love stories have to be shoehorned in, where decades of a nuanced saga must be diluted into two snappy hours, the comics provide a mainline thrill to your brain through your eyes, by way of your imagination.

So I’m going to use “Back to the Comics” as a constant byline. Because we would lose a hell of a lot if we ever lost comics, and it’s going to be important to remember that in the years to come.