Some years ago, while attending York University for my Bachelor of Arts degree, I befriended someone who shared some classes with me. He greatly impressed me with his knowledge of literature. When a professor asked the class if they had heard of an author or had read a piece of work, my friend almost always said yes. His knowledge of literature astounded me and to this day, he is still the most well-read person I know.
Now admittedly, even though I have a degree in English Literature, there are a number of great, famous works that I’ve yet to study or read. Much to my dismay, I might add. I’ve never studied or read Milton’s Paradise Lost (though I’m somewhat familiar with it). I’ve never read Huckleberry Finn. I’ve never read anything by the Bronte sisters. And unless you count watching Bill Murray in the Christmas film, Scrooged or Mickey’s Christmas Carol (or even the Doctor Who episode, A Christmas Carol), I’ve never read anything by Charles Dickens. Even though I’ll admit it’s a brilliant work, I absolutely loathed trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, so much so that I dropped a James Joyce course due to my frustrations with the epic.
So yes, even though I have a degree in literature, I sadly admit that there are still a number of great works that I’ve never read. I’ve heard professors say to a class that some of the above mentioned works should be essential reading for an English Literature degree.
However, around the same time that I met my friend at York, I had a personal revelation: comics are my literature. I blame Superman’s death. In 1992, DC Comics killed off their first and most iconic character. Death in comic books is hardly innovative, as The Flash and Supergirl (along with scores of alternate realities) were killed in Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. Gwen Stacey was famously killed in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. But Superman? How could DC possibly kill off the character who arguably invented superheroes as we know them today? I had to know.
While I enjoyed sometimes comics when I was younger, I’d never seriously collected them. I doubt my parents expected this to change, either, when they gave me a collected edition of The Death of Superman, collecting not just the iconic Superman #75, but the entire story and battle with Doomsday, Superman’s killer. Some months later, I also picked up the follow up Funeral for a Friend collected edition. I had to know what happened after that, because it teased Superman’s return. From there, I bought every issue of Superman, starting with The Reign of the Supermen, where four different versions of the Man of Steel suddenly appeared.
Because of my interest in Superman books, I began buying spin-offs like Superboy and Steel. This also led to buying my first major company crossover, Zero Hour, which led me to sample other books, like Green Lantern and Manhunter.
Around the same time, a friend of mine re-introduced me to Marvel comics, specifically the Spidey villain, Venom. Fascinated, I bought anything related with Venom, Carnage, or alien symbiotes. That interest spun out into different books, which eventually led to Spider-Man’s infamous Clone Saga. The less said about that, the better.
If it’s not obvious by now, I was hooked. I lived in Summerside, Prince Edward Island at the time of my growing obsession and (perhaps thankfully) the closest comic book store was in Charlottetown, about an hour drive away. Once a month, one or both of my parents would drive me there to pick up some comics. Sometimes, I couldn’t find issues, and scoured corner stores and supermarkets in Summerside. My allowance was quickly emptied on comics which, 20 years ago, sold for less than $2 (Canadian) each.
Dad never understood why I spent so much on comics. In retrospect, I imagine my reasoning was similar to why many bullied young adults enjoyed superheroes: empowerment and escape. Seeing these mild mannered characters don brightly coloured outfits and prance across rooftops, fighting the good fight wasn’t just enjoyable, but empowering for someone who constantly felt not so empowered.
One time, in High School, Dad flat out asked me, “Why do you waste so much money on those funny books?” (He called them “funny books” because I guess that was a once-used term.) My response was simple: “Well, I could spend money on these…or I could drink, smoke, and do drugs. Which would you prefer?” He rarely said anything about my spending again. Though one time, when I scoured Comic Hunter’s bargain bins during a huge sale (100 comics for $20!), I saw the vein in his forehead throb when he saw two plastic bags filled to breaking with comics.
Up until and through part of university, superhero comics were the mainstay of my collection. By this time, it was the late 90s, with giant events and crossovers becoming more and more common. While I still enjoyed some titles, like Nightwing and JLA, I was growing sick of it. Around 1997, I read more actively in the growing internet community. I started reading reviews by writers such as Don MacPherson and Randy Lander. As a result, my eyes opened to the possibility that, wow, there are comics out there that are much better than what I’m reading.
My tastes slowly expanded. Preacher (by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon) was one of the first comics I bought that had any kind of mature content, like swearing, nudity, and violence. I had tried some Image comics before, but didn’t really enjoy them. They seemed excessive just for the sake of being excessive. A book like Preacher, while certainly excessive, carried with it some great characters and engaging stories. I remember finding Volumes 1-5 at a used bookstore in Fredericton (The Owl’s Nest) and gorged on them in one sitting. Fredericton (and Halifax) had the best comic book store, as well: Strange Adventures. At the time, the owner (Derek) had set up a library system, allowing customers to borrow books. I was introduced to other books like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and James Robinson’s Starman.
An article in Wizard magazine listed the Top 100 trade paperbacks. It became my goal to own most, if not all of it. The article introduced me to books I hadn’t even heard of, such as Paul Chadwick’s Concrete and most especially, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which astounded me at the time that it rated above Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Today, thanks to reviews, articles, recommendations, or just curiosity seeing it on the shelf, my collection has expanded considerably away from DC and Marvel comics. I still enjoy superhero comics, but the vast majority of my favourite comics today are by other companies such as Image, IDW, Oni, Dark Horse, and Top Shelf. When I go into a comic store today and the person working there doesn’t know me, they’ll try to recommend a lot of books to me. They soon discover that I’m incredibly well read on the medium, sometimes – if not usually – more so than them! They’ll ask if I’ve read something; my answer 99% of the time is yes. There are still a number of books I’ve yet to read. I’ve yet to read anything by Canadian cartoonist, Seth, or Chris Ware. I’ve yet to read Poison Elves, Judge Dredd, or Strangers in Paradise.
But like my friend who I met at York University, I’ve realized that comics are my literature. Even if I’ve not read everything, I have at least passing familiarity with most. I know and have read a number of various authors and their works. I find I’ll follow creators more than characters. I’ll read anything by my favourites such as Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Jeff Lemuire, and Brian Wood. Heck, thanks to comics, I wound up picking up most of Greg Rucka’s prose novels, which are some of my favourites.
I catch references to stories or even sly behind-the-scenes allusions. One of my favourite prose novels, for example, is the Pulitzer Award winning novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. The titular characters are like a merging of several (mostly Jewish) creators back in the 40s and 50s, such as Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and especially Jack Kirby. In fact, it breaks my heart that Stan Lee is a household name while Jack Kirby – who had just as much, if not more to do with the creation of Marvel Comics as we know it – is only known and revered within the industry.
My point is this: I love comics. I love the medium of comics. I love the way that stories are told in feeling such pride in my comics knowledge. I love every genre with in the medium, like superhero, crime fiction, horror, science fiction, etc. It’s all wonderful to me. I feel a bit guilty on the back about this, but personally, I love recommending great comics to friends. I’ve gotten a number of friends into different series and I honestly love seeing them enjoy the books that I’ve enjoyed.
So yeah: comics. I love ‘em. That’ll never change.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, true believers.
Pingback: Long-Term Thinking for Comic Books | Nick C. Piers