01 May 2011

Comic Books, Small Towns and Generational Bonds

Yup; that's Spidey vs. Megatron!
I cannot say now where I first encountered comic books, but I am certain that the first time I ever asked to own one was when I learned there were comic books based on Transformers.  I was crazy about those robots, and my guess is that my attention finally took notice of a spindle of the funny books at a gas station somewhere in Louisville.  Once I discovered this, I made a point of scouring those spindles any time I found one.  Additionally, in those days it was common for publishers to package together a few back issues of a comic series and sell them to places like Value City (where we periodically shopped).  I can clearly recall sitting at a table outside somewhere, my mom and grandmother chatting away, while I was busy opening a couple of those packages of comic books.  That's really how I got reasonably caught up on the titles I read as a kid.

At some point, I was told about how my deceased uncle had been a comic book enthusiast.  In fact, he even collaborated with a friend of his to write and illustrate their own comic book.  Eerily enough, the story is titled, "On Borrow'd Time" and begins with the protagonist climbing out of water.  He learns that he drowned, but was sent back to become a hero.  This was created shortly before my uncle did, in fact, drown at Taylorsville Lake while still in his teens.  I get chills just thinking about it; always have.  My grandfather still has the comic and one of these days I'm going to scan it in for archival purposes.

It was with this generational bond in mind that in 2005 I elected to give comic books for Christmas to my nephew and the younger son of my brother's then-girlfriend.  They were both around ten at the time.  I picked out Justice League Unlimited #16 and Teen Titans Go! #25.  Those were series done in the style of the Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans animated series, and I knew both boys watched those shows and enjoyed them.  Plus, both issues were Christmas-themed.  I put each in a mylar bag with backing board, wrapped them in tissue paper and placed them in a standard gift box.  I was excited the entire month of December, just waiting to introduce them to the world of comic books.

When the time came, my brother's girlfriend's son graciously--though calmly--thanked me.  At one point I sat on the couch after all the gifts had been exchanged and I watched him casually thumb through the issues.  They had been little more than an unexpected diversion to him.  He was polite about it, but I could tell I'd failed to score a hit.  My nephew was even more catastrophic.  He refused to even open them, all but begging me not to make him (gasp!) read something.  He wouldn't even take them with him when he left our apartment; he insisted I keep them.  "For safe-keeping," you know.  I still have them, but going on six years later I have no illusion that he'll ever claim them, much less read them.

Comic books still speak to the young boy I once was, curious to learn new words and to marvel at hyper-realistic, colorful adventures.  It truly breaks my heart to see a generation that lacks that curiosity, that resists even being introduced to it.  In fact, out of my entire family, I can say that I know only three others who ever read comics: my mom and her two brothers, and both my mom and her surviving brother gave them up sometime before leaving childhood.  Everyone else has either an aversion to reading or a misguided snobbery toward the medium in particular and imagination in general (most of them suffer both maladies).

You can't really buy comics at gas stations and drug stores today.  The publishers don't ship their books to those outlets anymore.  It's a real shame, too, because I know how rare it was when I was a kid to know anyone else who was ever taken to a comic specialty shop like The Great Escape that I've talked about in this blog.  If my classmates were to have any exposure to comics, it was through the admittedly paltry offerings on display at local gas stations, pharmacies and even Kroger (a regional grocer).  I would guesstimate that as much as half of my comics library as a kid came from those places in town.  I may have lost my awareness of, and interest in, comic books altogether if there were none on sale in my small town.

I wonder how many kids across America have grown up without having the faintest idea where comic books are even sold, or what's being published, because now they have to go to a specialty store or chain bookseller (like Barnes & Noble or Borders) to even find comics.  I'm sure it made sense to the bean counters, but I cannot fathom how it's reasonable to cut off access to their product.  The culture out here would have parents balk at the notion of driving to Louisville to take their kids to a store that only sold comic books and comic book-related merchandise.  Parents of young children out here feel that stuff is a waste because their kids will outgrow those things within a year, and parents of older children actively discourage an interest in such things. "You're ten damn years old now, it's time to grow up and quit talking about Spider-Man."  (The modern version is, "Be quiet; go watch Spider-Man.")  The only opportunity to reach those kids is to put comics on the shelves locally, where Mom and Dad are more inclined to say, "Oh, fine, put it in the cart."  Of course, Mom and Dad aren't going to pay upwards of $3 an issue; that goes back to comics being a frivolous phase to be quickly outgrown.

Powerful literary art;
never sold at a gas station.
I credit comic books for instilling in me a fascination with language that has served me well over the years.  I would not be articulate without comic books.  Keeping track of multiple continuities is an ability honed by years of reading comics, and that ability was of paramount importance to me over the years as a student--particularly in college, when I took multiple history classes in the same semester.  Once you can follow X-Men continuity, keeping the French Revolution, Italian Renaissance and beginnings of Islam straight isn't a problem.  I wouldn't be so concerned if I felt that my nephew's generation was still building those same curiosities and abilities to make sense of multiple concepts simultaneously, but the truth is I don't have that confidence.

But then, what do I know?  I'm so old, cover price was sixty cents when I began reading.


  1. You know of the nomadic nature in which I was raised, shuffled weekly between Louisville and LaGrange, then that weekly shifting into the daily. I grew up lacking a solid sense of home and of private space, and with a distinct separation between myself and my friends. I was aware my life was not like that of those around me, and was understandably insecure, knowing I was missing out on something. However, I would hardly go so far as to call my upbringing tragic, as my parents loved me and dared not trample on my imagination, and my dual citizenship afforded me opportunities others didn't have. For almost 20 years now, I have been counting down to Wednesday.

    If you know comics, your life does not fall between Sunday and the next Saturday, it does not break down into the work week and the weekend, nor will it ever. No matter what construct society develops to divide your week into the days you work or go to school and the days you do not, you will remain as constant as the northern star. Your life exists between Wednesdays. Wednesday is when new books hit the stands at the comic book specialty store. By going to the store at random times on Wednesday, I have seen people that I haven't seen in ten years. We're all still counting down to Wednesday.

    I was fortunate to have the opportunity to become so involved in my hobby. That out of a mental disease that forced our constant migration upon us, I was able to find an oasis in the middle of the traditional week. I was always able to plead with my Mom or my Dad to allow me up to ten minutes to run in to the comic book store and pick out my catch of the week. I'm even more grateful for this opportunity now, knowing how your interest in them has had to survive small town cultural strangulation.

    I agree, the generations to follow ours will face even greater trials than our own, most of which the majority shall be unprepared for because they have little respect or interest in the printed word. The youth of this country are already mystified by creations that can seem so benign to the rest of us because they have no clue how to pay attention to the subtleties of a story. In comics and literature, a throwaway reference can come roaring back in a big way by the end of a story, but the reader learns to identify those threads as important. We know that when someone labors to include such text or even an illustration that alludes to something seemingly distant from our current position in the story, there is more story yet to come. The new youth seem perpetually fascinated by the trivialities of the lives of the Kardashians or the most mundane comedies that weakly retread the ground of the old. Complex story structure, delivered through printed matter as through the very world we inhabit, is another language to them. One wonders if the generation beyond them will stare at a light bulb someday, convinced it works only through the darkest of magics.

    But as you say, we are old and perhaps jaded. I recall a quote I once heard, supposedly an inscription recovered from a tomb in Egypt, decrying that society was doomed to last little longer to come as the youth were lazy drunkards interested only in pleasure. Maybe things won't get a lot better, but they may very well keep going. I almost want to accept that, but then I remember I'm a son of Wednesday, my lessons learned on Wednesday, and we cannot just accept the world as it is, we can keep trying to find the best of it.

  2. Sometimes I think you do yourself a disservice to post here what would make for terrific reading on your own blog!

    I would like to consult your thoughts on my characterization of the local culture, because of course I can only articulate the world as I have seen and known it. Thanks to my mom, I was much more exposed to Louisville and familiar with that world than many of our classmates and neighbors here in Oldham County, but you ran in a much more urbane circle, I suspect, than I did. (After all, we rarely took a friend with us, so my visits to Louisville were largely in a vacuum.)

    I do not expect my generalization to be perfectly applicable to everyone you've ever known out here, but do I sound reasonably accurate when I say that many, if not most, parents out here would deride comic books as a wasteful frivolity to be quickly outgrown--if indulged in the first place?