How do you answer when someone asks you why you read comics? This is my tale of Funny Book addiction.
From time to time, a friend, relative or casual acquaintance will broach the subject of my love for comic books. The conversation usually begins with something like "You're a pretty intelligent guy. You have a wife and kids, and a pretty good life. Why do you bother reading comics?" There are some implications within that question: intelligent people shouldn't be interested in comic books, nor should married or well-adjusted people. For many years, if I were asked this question, I would go into a long lecture about the power of myth in the lives of ourselves and our ancestors, and Jungian archetypes and how they feed into our primal need to have some control of the world around us. This would generally either impress or confuse them enough to let the subject drop, but it left me a bit unsatisfied. It frustrated me that people could not fathom that a grown man in his thirties (at the time) could find any value in comic books. It finally came to a head when a friend asked me during one happy hour that same old question: "Why do you read comic books?" I looked at him and said "Why do you play golf?" His answer was, of course, that he played golf because he enjoyed it. "Bingo," I replied.
I suspect many of us have had similar experiences with friends, family or colleagues, who simply don't understand the appeal of comics. On the other hand, I suspect that there are a number of people who ask these questions because they are interested in, perhaps, at least checking out what comics have to offer, and they are looking for someone to tell them that it's okay. So, for those people, and for those of you who may need a bit of encouragement when confronted with these questions, this is my story.
For as far back as I can remember, I've been drawn to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. In the days before cable television was even available in my small West Texas home town, if I were able to choose what was on the single TV in the house, I would flip between the three available channels looking for a rerun of "Lost in Space" or "Star Trek." When we finally did get cable TV in the mid seventies (we now had about eight channels, two of which were in Spanish), I would spend Saturday nights watching whatever creature feature was showing on KTVT out of Dallas/ Fort Worth. I was born a Nerd, it seems.
I have a memory of being about ten years old, accompanying my mother on her bi-weekly grocery shopping excursion. On this particular trip, we went to a smaller grocery that was well known in town for having a much better butcher shop than the two supermarkets in town. If you recall shopping for groceries with your Mom when you were ten years old, then you remember it as a soul-crushing experience for the both of you. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was at that moment, and my petulance was driving my poor mother over the edge. And then, I saw it: a spinner rack, five and a half feet tall and bursting with color and exciting images that drew me to it as surely as the Sirens drew the Greek sailors to their death upon the rocks.
I begged my mother to let me stay there while she finished the shopping, and I was delighted when she agreed. (This was in 1975, in a town of about 7,000 people. There was not yet the pervasive fear of child abduction by strangers that there is today.) I studied the covers of the treasure trove in front of me. Some of them had characters I recognized from Television, but this represented the first time I had ever seen Casper the Friendly Ghost or Superman in color (both the Casper cartoons and "The Adventures of Superman" were black and white programs). And the variety available on that rack was astonishing to me. There were superhero stories, war stories, funny cartoons and even adaptations of TV shows that I recognized. And there was horror. Oh, yes, my Droogies, there was horror. All the comics were just sort of placed there haphazardly, without any real system of organization, so I had to remove and look at each one individually. I felt as though I had discovered the gateway to a whole new world of adventure, and I basked in the rays of the multicolored glory the emanated from the spinner rack at the end of the dog food aisle.
When my mother returned to collect me, she must have seen something of the wonder that I felt written on my face, because she asked if I would like a comic book. Fearing that I might take forever to decide which one I wanted, she admonished me not to take too long and to only pick out one. Her fears were unfounded, because I knew which cover in that amazing wire apparatus spoke the loudest and I went directly to Marvel's "Invaders" #31. If I have to explain why this was my favorite cover in the rack, then you were never a ten year old boy!
After that day, Mom and I had a routine: While she would shop for groceries, I would stand at the rack and pick out one or two comics that I really wanted. I was aware that the books had numbers on the top left corner of the cover, but I had no real understanding of what they signified. I was aware that I was only getting part of the story, at least in the superhero books (the horror books I picked up were mostly anthologies which followed the old EC "Tales From the Crypt" model of three short stories introduced by a cadaverous narrator), but I was okay with that. Then, one day, while reading an issue of "Avengers" I had just acquired, I started to notice that some of it seemed a little familiar. I had, quite by accident, picked up the issue which came right before the issue I had gotten on the previous trip. When I finished the new book, I quickly dug out the follow-up issue and re-read it. I was delighted that, as much as I had enjoyed the issue the first time I read it, I understood so much more the second time. Clearly, following a title issue to issue was going to provide a much richer experience than the scatter-shot cover selection method I had used up to this point. I began hunting for specific issues after that, and began to put together some nice runs of "Avengers," "Defenders" and, my favorite, "The Amazing Spider-Man."
I don't recall what the first issue of ASM was that I picked out, or why I did so. My best guess is that I recognized the character from TV or there was a particularly cool cover that beckoned to me from that magical rack. What I do remember is getting extremely sick with the measles one year, and being bed-bound for about four weeks. I pulled out my stack of comics and just began reading. The Spider-Man books seemed to pull at me for some reason, so I carefully arranged them in order, lowest issue number to highest, and dove in. Peter Parker was a young guy with glasses who liked science and couldn't get a girl to notice him if he were on fire. THIS was a guy to whom I could relate. Being a good student with a penchant for Sci-Fi and fantasy, I was feeling pretty marginalized at school. I hadn't yet formed the strong ties with friends that I would in Junior High and High School, so I was pretty much a loner. Spider-Man's adventures resonated with me on a deep, personal level, and through them, I learned many life lessons about perseverance, persistence, and doing the right thing, especially when doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. Oh, and he also battled Morbius,the Living Vampire, which was the coolest thing ever!
I continued to acquire and read comics for the next few years, including an eight inch tall stack of "Ghost Rider" and "The Hands of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu" that a roughneck on my Dad's drilling rig gave to me one summer. As I got older, I gradually fell out of the habit of purchasing comics. I discovered "Mad" magazine and Atari, and eventually girls. I became a teenager and had other things to worry about.
My Freshman year at college, I met a friend who was a comics collector. He actually had a couple of long boxes in his dorm room containing the books he had purchased while at college. This was new to me, as I had no previous idea that boxes and bags made specifically for comic books even existed. When I asked him where he found them, he looked at me like I was an idiot and said "The Comics Shop." This hit me like a lightening bolt. There were stores that just sold comics? This I had to see.
The store was a larger space than I had anticipated, and my friend showed me around, pointing out the location of the new release comics and the huge field of long boxes which held back issues. He then pointed to the wall behind the counter and said "That's where the cool expensive comics are," I remember seeing "The Incredible Hulk" #181 on the wall, priced at $120. I couldn't imagine a comic book being so expensive, but there it was. (Today, that issue, featuring the first full appearance of Wolverine sells for between $1800 and $2000.) This was also my first introduction to indie comics, with Eastman and Laird's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Danger Girl" being titles that stick out in my memory. My friend was picking up the latest issues "The Dark Knight Returns" and something I had never heard of, called "Watchmen." At the time, I wasn't quite sold on an old Batman with a girl Robin, and the art style was completely different than anything I had seen before. As for "Watchmen," I wasn't sure I was understanding the concept as he explained it to me. "Just trust me on these," he told me. Glad I listened.
Since that time, I have drifted in and out of comics, depending on my personal finances. But I never stay gone for long. Why do I read comics? Because they're fun, because they're artistic, because I ENJOY them. And to this day, whenever I crack open a new comic, I flash back to that spinner rack in Mitchell's Thrifty Mart in 1975, where I first saw Captain America getting beaten up by the Frankenstein Monster in an SS uniform.
Stay filled with wonder.