Thursday, August 18, 2016

Back To Comic Books

Web of Spiderman 64

My early adolescent obsessions went through three very distinct phases. At age 11 I started collecting baseball cards, an obsession that dominated much of my free time in 1987 and 1988, before dimming in 1989 and pretty much going away by 1991. In junior high, starting some time in 1989, I got very heavily invested in comic books, and started checking out compilation books from the library. A kid a grade ahead of me in my study hall also sold me a pile of old Spider Man comics he had. They seemed to fit pretty well with my love of Dungeons and Dragons and Stephen King novels. Unfortunately for me, by the time I graduated from the eighth grade, the nerd friend group I was a part of basically decided I wasn't cool enough for them, and cast me out. They had finally found someone they could mock and feel superior to for a change. (Of course, I spent a very sad and pathetic year trying to ingratiate myself with them to be allowed back in, to no avail.) I associated my interests with that group of nerds, and sometime in the spring of 1991 basically turned my back on comics and role playing games and started obsessing about music. Also, I soon started reading philosophy and heavier novels in my spare time. I associated my nerdy obsessions with my former friends who thought they were better than me. I decided that, in actuality, role playing and comics were a lot less cool and mature than punk rock and Dostoevsky. I would even later poo-poo the entire art form, finding it much more limited in its capacity to tell a story than literature or film. Still couldn't get a date, though.

Had I not been ostracized at age 14, I think I might have been able to sustain my interest in comics. On many days after school I would walk over to the public library and wait for my parents to pick me up after school. I soon started making a detour over to the main street of my hometown's downtown (just a block away) to go to an old school newsstand that was still there called Central News. They had a big spinner rack of comics, and a much bigger selection than was available at the local drug store.

My first purchase was Web of Spiderman 64, in the spring of 1990. I chose that title because that was the title that the kid had sold a pile of the previous year. It was actually not considered to be a very good comic, but being a contrarian, I decided to make it "my" Spidey title. This is the same distaste for doing the popular thing that has led me to be a fan of the Mets, White Sox, and Everton FC. I also bought a ton of Batman and Punisher, whose violent ways were a kind of naughty joy for the nice altar boy that I was at the time.

I actually kept my purchasing of comic books a secret from my parents, because I was buying a lot of them and I feared their judgement of my spendthrift ways. I had a desk drawer full of my comics stash, where other, more daring teenage boys would've had much more illicit materials. (I also kept my visits to the arcades secret for the same reason. Yes, I was such a dork that my sneaking involved comic books and video games, not booze and porn.) Later on, during the early 90s comics boom, a bona fide comic book store opened up in my hometown, but by that time I had checked out, although I did occasionally read a (true) friend's comics, including the Dark Empire series and the Death of Superman books.

Flash forward to today-ish. Last year I was contacted by a reader of this blog (hope you're still reading) who lives in the area wanted to chat with me in person about the process of leaving academia for independent high schools. As we talked it came out that he was a huge comics fan, and that he knew a great comic book primary source for my current research project. He took me to Midtown Comics, where we were able to track it down in a compilation. He wasn't wrong about the source, which was great, but as I started reading that comic and others, I was reminded of what had drawn me in to begin with. I started checking out graphic novels from my school's library and buying a few books here and there from stores in the city. Then, a few months ago realized that there was comics store not far from where I live. (Amazing Heroes in Union, New Jersey, to be precise.) It's small but packed to the rafters with a pretty astonishing selection of both comics and books. The owner is a chatty, friendly guy about the polar opposite of the character on The Simpsons. Now that it's summer I've been taking my daughters with me and letting them pick a kids comic to take home.

I am by no means diving in completely (I have never really wanted to be a member of any subculture club that would have me.) I pick up some books that look interesting, follow a couple of titles pretty consistently, and chat a little with the comic store owner. It is a little strange to delve back into an adolescent activity that I had already considered passe by the time I was in the tenth grade. Some of it I think is a coming to grips with my rejection back in the eighth grade, which had haunted me for years. Because of my loneliness in my teen years that resulted from not really having a group of friends, I never turned down a social engagement in college and grad school, hoping that my friends would not suddenly decide that they didn't like me and wouldn't want me around anymore. It took awhile, but I guess I am over that fear, and am over avoiding things that remind me of the little nerd world that I was cast out of.

Because you know what? Comics are cool. They are a unique art form, and when done well, are really stunning things to behold. The amount of lore and history built into the biggest heroes adds layers of richness missing in many other forms of pop culture. As someone obviously interested in history, I like an art form where the history is an essential part of enjoying it. (This is also why I like baseball.) Comic fans are often mocked, but it is definitely a more demanding and discerning fandom than many others. As a child of Generation X, I also just miss physical media artifacts. Everything is getting downloaded and pixelated, and that's not a wholly bad thing, but it does make me feel alienated somehow from the art. There is something more vital about going to a comics store, browsing the racks, flipping through the books, and choosing a couple to take home. I find it to be a kind of subtle therapy, the type of small pleasure that makes life bearable. If that's not reason enough to go back to a childish thing, then what isn't?


chaunceydevega said...

Are you reading the best thing out today Southern Bastards? Scalped? Brubaker's amazing opus? The essential Saga, Ennis' run on The Punisher from a few years back? Fables? Hell, go back and grab the zero issue collection for Elephantmen and tell me your eyes don't tear up.

You would love Aaron's work--never mind his Star Wars line, Vader Down could be a movie.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I picked up Southern Bastards due to your rec awhile back. I've also been reading various Star Wars books, Black Panther, and the occasional other title. Vader Down looks real good. Thanks for the other suggestions.