On Becoming a Comics Reader

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

I’ve always been a reader.

A librarian pressed novels by Tamora Pierce, J.K. Rowling, and Octavia Butler into my hands. My mother took me to the used bookstore by my primary school and let me wander the shelves, picking whatever caught my eye. My father passed down his battered paperback editions of Heinlein’s juveniles and Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. I like complex protagonists who get back up when they get knocked down. I like sprawling casts of characters, ingenuitive worldbuilding, and adventures in unfamiliar landscapes. Comics are a natural fit.

Unfortunately, my intro to life as a comics reader was less than idyllic.

I had no guide into the esoteric landscape of comics. My school and public libraries didn’t carry them. Neither of my parents are fans. The used bookstore was a comics wasteland. My computer had internet access, but the sprawling Wikis decrypting the complex histories of long-running titles and the indecipherable numbering systems weren’t around yet. I doubt they would have made a difference.

I set foot in a comic book shop exactly once during high school. This particular store is better managed now, friendlier to newbies, but back then it was like a scene out of The Big Bang Theory. I was gawked at from the moment I stepped through the door; my questions were mocked by gatekeeping bros in vintage Justice League shirts; and I was made to feel so unwelcome I fled to the parking lot. I battled an anxiety attack in my beat-up Jeep for twenty minutes before my hands stopped shaking so I could safely drive home. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. It was made very clear that the land of capes and tights was Not For Me.

So how did I end up reading comics, anyway?

Two things happened: my college assigned Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to incoming students and a classmate introduced me to Questionable Content, a webcomic set in a fictionalized version of the small town bordering our campus.

The first was a revolution. Persepolis, a two-part graphic memoir about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution prior to studying in Vienna and Strasbourg, is starkly and beautifully rendered. It’s by turns funny, enraging, and heartbreaking. The second was a revelation. Questionable Content was both baffling and familiar. It’s a slice of life tale about familiar people in a surreal version of a place I knew. I wanted to give comics another try.

The next few years were a whirlwind. I took time off from school, first for a yearlong internship and then to learn how to manage my mental health. I struggled with misdiagnosed bipolar disorder and anxiety. My budget rarely gave me the wiggle room to keep up with monthly titles, but I occasionally picked up discounted issues or the odd trade.

Today I’m in a better place, mentally and financially. I made a circuitous route back to comics through the reemergence of superhero movies and the wonderful world of fanfiction. I’m slowly working my way through a TBR populated with stories I never could’ve dreamed of all those years ago, a trembling teenager in a shop crowded with ignorance and hatred. I get to choose from a wealth of inclusive, compelling stories.

Ngozi Ukazu’s webcomic Check, Please! is about a gay former figure skater who vlogs about baking and plays college hockey. I’m a lifelong hockey fan and I never thought I’d see a comic portray hockey culture with this kind of love and awareness. Saga is the sprawling space opera I wish I’d grown up with: a feminist mashup of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings with a bonus sprinkling of Romeo and Juliet. Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye reminds me that even failtastic goofballs can make a difference on a large and small scale. My TBR overflows with title after title of amazing women: Spider-Gwen, Gail Simone and Greg Rucka’s recent Wonder Woman stories, Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Lumberjanes, Genevieve Valentine’s Catwoman, the amazing ladies of Young Avengers, and the list goes on. Comics have a long way to go before they reflect the diverse world we live in, but I’m blown away by how far they’ve come.

Today I walk into my LCS and I’m welcomed, often by one of several female employees, by name. I linger to talk adaptation news or to compare favorite titles. When I walk out I have fresh reading material, but I also have renewed belief in my place in comics fandom.

I’m not always confident in my status as a comic book fan. I self-identify as a ‘comics n00b’ in my Twitter bio. This is partly because it feels true and partly because social media can be unkind to fangirls. I feel safer acknowledging my perceived ignorance. I struggle with imposter syndrome, but being a fan is about loving something and, for me, sharing that love with others. I can have that with comics.

The nagging taunts of “fake geek girl” may never go away, but I feel the gatekeepers’ fury a little bit less. I don’t feel the need to prove my comic book cred to anyone. That frees up more time for reading.

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