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.