Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month: Mike Sterling on The Comic Reader #212 (August, 1983)

Guest Reviewer Month: Mike Sterling on The Comic Reader #212 (August, 1983)

I’d been aware of the idea of the fan press prior to picking this publication off the newsstand, of course; a letter published with my home address in a 1981 issue of Superman resulted in a slew of mailing and come-ons for conventions and fan-produced magazines and such. Plus, an early ’80s trip to a comic book store in Simi Valley resulted in my being on their mailing list, and getting their newsletter of news and comics gossip. And I’d read the slickly-produced, full-color (well, mostly color) Comics Scene magazine from Starlog Publications.

But this magazine was different.As a child I was fascinated with amateur publications. Not just comic book related ones, though it was a big part of it. But with the very idea of kids my age (or a bit older) producing their own books and magazines and newspapers outside of the “official” and respected publishing outlets. I handcrafted several comics and illustrated booklets of my own as a child, tried (and failed) to get the neighborhood kids to work together on a local newspaper, and sought out similar homegrown items.Now, the folks who produced The Comic Reader obviously weren’t kids, but this was definitely an amateur publication (though a bit more upscale than most fanzines), and I did find it for sale in the newsstand where I regularly bought my comic books at the time, so clearly this wasn’t just something some guys put together for a few friends. Why, this may even have had a print run of hundreds of copies!And like the comic shop newsletter I mentioned, there was news and rumors, but the sheer quantity of it was overwhelming! That newsletter was only a few pages long, but The Comic Reader had page after page after page of densely-packed type and the occasional cover repo and reports and rumors of forthcoming projects, and plenty of info about those small press “indie” titles that were beginning to proliferate and were attracting my attention.The Comic Reader #212 also contained what might have been my first print exposure to fandom discussions outside of the publisher-approved-and-edited letters columns in their publications…well, beyond talking about comics with my friends, which, frankly, I didn’t do too often anyway. Reading missives from folks talking, not just about a specific comic they just had to write a Letter of Comment about, but about a wide range of titles and topics in relation to multiple publishers, and how this issue of X-Men relates to that issue of Green Lantern, and how it all ties in with Hill Street Blues…well, okay, that example was stretching things a bit, but still, it was a side of fandom I hadn’t yet become familiar with. (And now, as a comics retailer and a comics blogger, I may be too familiar with it at this point, but back then, it was still all new and fresh and interesting.)

The artwork is another aspect of The Comics Reader that fascinated me. There were spot illos from humor cartoonist Fred Hembeck, seemingly ubiquitous in those days, and whose work was already familiar to me. But there were a couple of illustrations by this other guy I didn’t know, Mike Mignola, who also provided the cover, and something about his art style really appealed to me. It was because of this magazine that I started to keep an eye out for future work by this Mignola cat, which of course brought me to his work on Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk, Cosmic Odyssey, and, best of all, got me on the ground floor of his ongoing Hellboy projects.

Perhaps, most importantly, The Comics Reader #212 was responsible for exposing me to the work of Don Rosa. The ‘zine included, among other strips, a couple of samples of Rosa’s Captain Kentucky superhero spoof, a densely-packed Harvey Kurtzman-esque strip which grabbed my attention, partially for reasons going back to my attraction to amateur “outside the mainstream” projects, but mostly because I thought it was extremely funny. The “important” part of this is that, like with Mignola, I kept an eye out for other work by Rosa. Fantagraphics would publish a two-issue run of Don Rosa’s Comics & Stories (starring Captain Kentucky’s alter ego, Lancelot Pertwillaby), but a few years later, Gladstone Comics, then holder of the Disney comics license, would publish an Uncle Scrooge McDuck comic by Rosa. I was 18 years old when that came out, and that was probably the first Disney comic I’d bought (or, more accurately, that my parents had bought for me) since I was about six or seven years old. It was as funny and adventurous and as delightfully densely-illustrated as those older Rosa comics I so enjoyed…and, here, finally, is that “important” part I keep mentioning…it directly led me into discovering the work of “The Good Duck Artist” Carl Barks, and now, at 41, thanks to the various reprinting projects over the years, I have more or less a complete collection of Barks’ Disney work.

This issue of The Comic Reader was also responsible for my wanting more issues of The Comic Reader. Over the years I’ve managed to accumulate a large portion of The Comic Reader's 200+ issue run, from the earliest mimeographed three-page-long letters, to future DC Comics head honcho Paul Levitz's tenure as editor, to the tiny digests of the ’70s…and each issue providing an insight into the fan's perspective of comics events of the day. As a historical document, it's both fascinating and amusing to see what concerns drove fandom at the time. The fans worrying about, say, violence in comics in 1972, probably would have had heart attacks if they knew what was coming!

Ultimately, I owe a lot to The Comics Reader #212, for how it formed my comic tastes and collecting goals, and showed me a new way of thinking about comics discussion and criticism. It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that it’s even an influence today on my comics blog. And that’s the bittersweet thing…the day of the general-purpose print comics fanzine in the style of The Comic Reader is good and gone, replaced by websites and blogs. Even the most successful comics magazine of recent years, Wizard, is a shadow of its former, pandering, price-guide slinging self. Not saying I don’t love comic news sites and blogs, since, you know, I’m relatively involved in that particular scene…but there’s a bit of sadness in the realization that no one’s going to happen upon an old dusty website in a box in a used bookstore twenty years from now, and discover what comic fans were thinking and doing way back when. Sure, there are web archive sites, but that’s not quite the same…and no guarantee that they’ll be around decades from now anyway.

Anyway, thank you, The Comic Reader #212. You’ve affected my life in many ways, most of them probably good.

Mike Sterling manages Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, CA, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year! He writes about comics at the long-running and generally not-hated weblog Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin, vents some steam on his Twitter, is on staff at The Bureau Chiefs, and is a contributor to the Internet sensation Fake AP Stylebook (soon to be a real book from Three Rivers Press). His XBox Live gamertag is “MikesterJr,” if you’d like to shoot him in the face in Grand Theft Auto IV.

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