When I was a young boy, my brother and I bought comic books, but I didn’t yet qualify as a comic book geek. First of all, all the purchases were leisurely, more likely to happen as a whim upon a trip to the pharmacy than as a directed effort to seek out the flimsy, stapled literary pictorial works. We didn’t care about the condition of the comics we bought. We bent them, tore them, wrinkled them, threw them around. Most importantly, we didn’t know the histories of the characters or the exact issue numbers of their first appearances.
My brother continued to grow up quite normally in relation to comic books—that is, he grew away from them, as most adults do, sadly. I, too, grew away from them for a while. I favored playing with my war toys. Eventually, though, middle school hit. At that time, there were only a handful of “good” artists in my grade. Of course, “good” in sixth grade means merely that one is able to draw more than a stick figure and have some inkling of what perspective and shading are. There was Carl, there was Alex, and there was me. Alex and I hadn’t known each other very well, but we would soon become friends and even draw together. Carl, at the time, seemed obnoxious to me, flaunting his drawing ability haughtily… and in the form of comic book art. The competitive nature arose within me, and I wished to show him up by drawing comics better than he, but I didn’t know how to draw comics. What were comics? What did the characters’ costumes look like? I knew none of this. I had to do some research.
Soon, I was buying up a storm of comics, getting to know the characters, what they looked like, what cool poses they had. It wasn’t long before I even forgot about Carl and just started reading and drawing for fun. In seventh grade, Alex and I had a lot of the same classes together (I think we even sat together in social studies), and during class we drew pictures of Batman and the Reaper going at each other violently. We would visit each other’s houses, bringing art supplies, and draw strips together. Sometimes he would pencil and I would ink; other times I would pencil and he would ink. Even though we had different drawing styles, it was an interesting way to bond, when so many our age were caught up in computer games.
Yes, Alex and I produced comics (though, I don’t think we ever produced an entire story from beginning to end), but my reading of them became ravenous. I had to have more. Sometimes, I would spend three or four hours at the comic book store. I would have my mom drop me off at the local store, Outer Limits, and I would take my time, browsing through the new arrivals, sifting through the back issues, perusing the graphic novels’ contents, and looking for the best deals. Even now I savor the chance to dig into a good 25-cent bin at a comic book store. Unfortunately, those bins are slowly disappearing in favor of 50-cent bins and dollar bins. Steve, the main guy at Outer Limits (I think he may also be the owner), saw me show up at his store when I was eleven, but he also saw me come back at twelve, thirteen, fourteen, all the way through twenty and twenty-three. He saw me grow up, and I can’t say there are too many store owners who have done that! Sure, he smoked too much, but I liked his no-frills approach to business. He had quality selection and good prices. He didn’t harass customers, but he always answered questions knowledgeably when asked.
Comic stores alone could not satiate my thirst for sequential art. I began mail-ordering, too—mainly from Passaic Book Center (since closed), American Comics (boo!), and East Coast Comics—all based in New Jersey. My favorite thing to order was grab bags. I could get 100 comics for $10 or 500 comics for $30 from Passaic Book Center. These were Marvels and DCs (the “big two”) but also Dark Horse Comics (part of the “big three”) and a whole bunch of independent publishers, too. I got exposed to so much through these grab bags, and so cheaply.
My last source of comic books was conventions. For three or four dollars, you could enter several hotel ballrooms’ full of vendors and real comic book artists, who would sign your copies and make small talk with you. 25-cent bins thrived at these conventions.
Why was I so fascinated with these fifteen or so pages stapled together? Well, I expanded my vocabulary through reading them. Iron Fist and Power Man taught me the word renege when I was still under ten. I learned a lot of conventional spellings for unconventional words: yeah, argh, gonna, etc. Plus, there was the added bonus of comic books as literature being an unexplored territory. If you tell an adult or a “normal” friend you’re reading Pride and Prejudice, you’ll likely get a “Oh, I remember when I read that. What a good book,” but if you tell her you’re reading Moonshadow, how likely are you to get a condescending, “You’ll love it. What a classic!” If only that likelihood were higher…
There was something, too, in the actual moment-to-moment experience of reading comics that provided a unique delight. The aesthetics of the visual accompanied by the structure and dialogue of a more typical fictional narrative in other forms.
Eventually, I amassed a collection of over 3,000 comic books, not including graphic novels. I had two letters published in The Comics Buyer’s Guide. Things were starting to get costly. Comic boxes, which held a few hundred each, were $3.75. Comic bags, depending on quality, ran anywhere from $.05 to $.25 each. The cover price of comic books was approaching the $3.00 mark (currently, they are even as high as $6.00 for a regular comic book on glossy paper). I soon made a policy for myself to buy only comic books that were $.25. As comic book stores became more and more desperate for sales, the 25-cent bins became more and more scarce, and so a comic book collector’s binge came to its end.
What’s amazed me the most is the persistence of people’s ignorance about comic fandom, about comic books themselves, and the accompanying unjustified snobbery. “Graphic novels” have earned some respectability in the eyes of the public and a place in some popular bookstores. Every now and then, Maus is taught in schools and colleges. The biggest buzz in Hollywood is the adaption of comic books to “the big screen.” Still, the general public’s vision of comic books is as some esoteric universe with no literary merit. An entire medium, not just an industry, is, to some, subpar. People will go out and talk about the latest book they’ve read, the latest movie they’ve seen, the latest magazine they’ve browsed through, the latest TV show they’ve watched, but rarely do conversations about the latest comic book pop up among respectable adults, unless they, too, are comic book nerds. It’s impressive to know every movie Scorcese has even done. It’s nerdy to know the first appearance of Spider-Man.
Yes, the industry has problems. Females (as artists, writers, and readers) are still underrepresented (and, as heroes and characters, often misrepresented), but that’s slowly changing. Most of the people I know who are now fanatical about comic books are women. They tend to gravitate toward Cerebus, Strangers in Paradise, The X-Men, Love and Rockets, and Sandman.
Somewhere along the way—long after Carl and I have lost touch (not that we were ever close friends), long after Alex has since earned his BFA, long since I have last visited Steve at Outer Limits or been to a comic book convention—I have stayed that comic book nerd inside. I don’t avidly collect comics any more. In fact, my wife purchases them far more frequently than I do. When we visit comic book stores, she’s looking for the latest Identity Crisis or Liberty Meadows. I might flip through a couple of back issues or the 25-cent bin, if it’s there, but I usually leave empty-handed.
These artists and writers, though—some of whom I’ve met; most of whom will never know of me—have helped me form my ideas about art, literature, life, heroism, morality, and the craft of writing: (in no particular order) Art Adams, Mike Mignola, Bill Sienkiewicz, Frank Miller, Frank Cho, J.M. DeMatteis, Jon J. Muth, Kent Williams, Alex Ross, Bernie Wrightson, Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Dave Stevens, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Louise Simonson, Walt Simonson, Lynn Varley, Klaus Janson, David Mazzuchelli, Tim Vigil, Steve Lightle, Adam Hughes, Richard Corben, Frank Thorne, Moebius, Ryiochi Ikegami, Bruce Jones, Kelley Jones, Kevin Maguire, Keith Giffen, Grant Morrison, Steve Bissette, John Byrne, Dave Sim, Terry Moore, Max Allan Collins, Chris Claremont, Alan Davis, P. Craig Russell, Mike Kaluta, Mike Zeck, Mike W. Barr, Kyle Baker, Will Eisner, the brothers Hernandez, Trina Robbins, Howard Chaykin, Reed Waller, Kate Worley, Brian Bolland, Barry Windsor-Smith, George Perez, Michael Golden, and Neal Adams. I’m sure I’ve left many, many great people off the list, but I wanted to express my appreciation to these people who have fed my literary and visual hunger as much as any David Henry Hwang, Jane Austen, Amy Heckerling, or Rob Reiner has.
I know Spider-Man’s first appearance was Amazing Fantasy #15, and I’m not ashamed.