Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mike Wieringo

Back in October 2002 Marvel attempted to put a fresh look on their First Family. Although that first issue didn't actually have "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" that above the name, it didn't take long for Fantastic Four to rightfully regain that title under the care and direction of new creative team, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo.

This is it. This is the issue that started it all for me. Not only did it ignite my love for Fantastic Four, but it rekindled my love of comics in general.

Around this time I was getting bored of comics. We still had no comic stores in Cork, and I was in Dublin for a few days when this came out. I have to be honest, I didn't even buy this issue. As you can see from the cover, it was selling for just 9cent in the US. Instead, Forbidden Planet must have gotten in hundreds! When I bought my graphic novels, random singles and a t-shirt or two the guy behind the desk threw in this for free.

"You'll like it", he said. "It's a new creative team. Pretty good stuff". I looked at the cover and agreed that the art was nice anyway, but it was Fantastic Four, a comic series that was anything but fantastic. I had little or no interest in reading cheesy adventures of aliens and mole-people. In my bag was the first 12 issues of something called Ultimate X-Men in a single hardbacked book that looked far more exciting! But what the heck, it was free! I thanked the guy behind the desk and walked out.

Today I cherish this issue. It's far from mint condition having been read by all my friends that weekend, and many, many times since then. It is well read, and well worn, like a good comic should be.

Ultimate X-Men sits on my shelf, unopened in months, if not years. I stopped collecting the hardbacks once I realised I couldn't remember what happened from one issue to the next.

Anyway, back to Fantastic Four, and the Waid/Wieringo run. Time moved on and I couldn't collect the issues that followed. But in the meantime, a new comic store opened in Cork, and I had everything at my fingertips. I was reading all sorts of comics, but the darker tone set by movies like X-Men and the then rumoured new Batman was sapping my interest in a lot of the Big Twos work. Admittedly, I was never a fan of DC, but even Marvel was loosing money to smaller publishers like Devils Due Publishing (DDP). G.I. Joe was bright, flashy action, full of silly costumes, code-names and ninjas. This was a song to my heart in an era where the X-Men wore black leather and Wolverine was more-often referred to as Logan than his code-name.

But the cover to the first issue of Mike Wieringo and Mark Waids Unthinkable story arc in Fantastic Four 496 grabbed my attention. It was bright and flashy. And it had Doom! And Doom is always fun. Plus, I remembered the issue I had from a few months previously. The art was great. The writing was fun and easy to follow, without being simplistic. So I added Fantastic Four to my pull-list, an act I thought I would soon regret.

At the time I couldn't name a single artist or writer working in comics. I was relatively fresh on the comics scene, especially up-to-date US stuff. Essential X-Men and Spectacular Spider-Man, the European reprints of US comics, were up to four years behind their US counterparts. Besides, with them, I didn't have to work about creator names. It wasn't like I had a choice in what I read. But now I could choose, and these Mark and Mike fellows made an incredible team!

Marks dialogue was sharp and witty, but it was Mikes art that nailed it! I fell in love with this art style as soon as I read this issue. It was bright, colourful and cheery, it had chunky fingers, cartoonish faces and minimalistic line usage. As Victor wandered around the small village, I almost expected the sun in the background to have a big-eyed, smiley face! And that big reveal on the last page! Wow! I was blown away! Maintaining the style I loved, but filling it with a foreboding menace and threat greater than the Fantastic Four had ever faced before!?! How did this man, this god among mortals, manage such a feat?!? I had liked the art direction of the Onslaught Saga, Joe Madureiras style, and Mikes art was sufficiently similar to catch my attention, but distinctive enough that I could compare both and agree that this was my style of choice.

And with every passing issue the Unthinkable arc just kept getting better and better, living up to its name in every way possible. The villain separated the family, attacked the children, sacrificed all to win. The story moved in unthinkable directions, as Mr. Fantastic took up weapons to even the odds. And with every twist of the writing, the art maintained the pace, panel after glorious panel of stunning visuals. For the first time in years (decades?!?) Marvels First Family were right back in center stage, and the buzz across the internet was electric.

Of course, I need not mention that Mikes depiction of Sue Richards as adventurer, hero, wife and super-hot soccer-mom has yet to be beaten in comics. She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being butch and proved that you didn't need to have revealing cleavage and big bosoms to keep every readers eyes glued to the panels.

I bought every issue of the Waid/Wieringo run of Fantastic Four from the Unthinkable arc onwards, picking up the missing six earlier issues in trade paperback. I still have them all. I still pull them out occasionally to read myself, or when someone asks me to recommend something. I still count the first issue for that creative team as one of my all-time favourite comics, and the start of Unthinkable as a master-class in story-telling and deception in literature.

Mike and Mark thought me how to enjoy comics again. After their run on Fantastic Four finished, the comic was taken off my pull-list. I had no interest in seeing what others were going to do. I followed Mikes works closely with Marvel, and he's the reason I read comics I would never have thought to before.

On August 12th of this year I was at home in Tipperary, away from fast internet and the wider world. I was home for a holiday, but as it turned out, I ended up attending two funerals. One was for an elderly aunt of my mums and was a fairly nice affair. She had been sick and everyone was prepared. The other was for the father of a school-friend of mine who had walked out his front door a few days previously and dropped dead in a field. Minutes beforehand he had been in having tea with his wife and seemed fine and happy. The heart-attack had been massive and unexpected.

I was sitting at home, as I said, away from fast, easy access interent, watching TV and preparing to go visit the family house and give my condolences to the family. It was late morning or early afternoon. I got a text message from a friend. He knew I was at home and wanted to let me know what news was breaking the internet in half. He also knew I was a fan.

At just 44 years young, Mike Wieringo had passed away from a massive heart attack. My favourite artist. My idol. The man whose style I most enjoyed. Taken. Without warning, or reason. This hit me harder that either of the funerals I attended over those days. A man I'd never met, never spoken to. I'd never emailed him, though I read his blog regularly, and commented once or twice. I'd commented on his brothers blog as well, and all I could think of was him. As terrible as Mike's lose was, I couldn't help but imagine how Matt must feel to have lost his older brother, and than upset me more. It was obvious from both blogs that the two brother loved each other very much. This death was insane and meaningless.

So when I heard of the immediate outpouring of grief from artists and writers across the industry, my heart sang with just a little joy. I didn't know how to describe how I felt, but these writers could put into words how we all felt. The artists illustrated our shared grief with tribute art that seemed to come from each of our own souls. Mike had touched more peoples hearts than I had ever expected, both inside and outside the comics industry. And the tributes continued to pour in.

And then the art went up on ebay, with proceeds going towards the Hero Initiative. I had to have one! But, as I was broke, I figured I didn't have a chance. One piece was going fairly cheap. So I bid. If I couldn't win it, I could at least push up the final price a little!

The thing is, it seems someone was watching out for me. I won!

Drawn by Nate Lovett, it shows Koj from Tellos roaring in sorrow at the news of Mikes passing. Along with the original pencil art was a beautiful, high quality print. The bottom right hand corner has the artists signature, as well as the words We'll miss you Mike! No truer words have been written.

We'll miss you. But we'll never forget you.

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