When I was six years old, having recently learned to read by myself (a talent which would later lead to me demanding to read to my mother instead of the other way around), my father presented me with one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever receive. It was a hardcover book, coated with one of his beloved plastic jackets; colored black and grey, the cover’s pinstriped background cast its principal character in shadow, a man with a dark blue scalloped cape, pointy ears, and blank white eyes. “The Dark Knight Archives,” the title proclaimed. “Volume 1.”
As was so often the case with Dad’s books, the title page bore an inscription (used book dealers are ever in pursuit of a signed copy). This was a little unusual, though. ”For Sam—Best wishes, BATMAN,” it read, with an unintelligible signature below it. I assumed it was from whoever got the book to us from DC, but didn’t pay it much thought—I was already devouring the tome, my appetite whetted by its first adventure, in which Batman met his mortal enemy the Joker. Thrilled by Batman and Robin’s battles against Hugo Strange, the Cat, and the Puppet Master, I eagerly moved on to the second volume, which Dad was all too eager to unearth from his fruit crate full of comics.
Batman was just the beginning. Dad’s collection had a wealth of the Archive Editions which DC published in the early 90s, and I was soon introduced to a scrappy test pilot endowed with a nigh-omnipotent green ring; a police scientist with the strange ability to outrun the time barrier; and a young boy who, merely by uttering a magic word, could transform into the World’s Mightiest Mortal. (I read several of these in our living room closet, where I found them; I knew there were illicit books which I was not supposed to read, and though I feared being caught with contraband, it wasn’t strong enough to keep me off superheroes.)
Later, I was allowed access to the Justice League and Legion of Super Heroes Archives, and by then I was well and truly hooked. Those hefty hardcovers sparked an obsession with comics that I knew would be with me for the rest of my life, a passion not limited to caped crusaders but certainly informed heavily by them. I’d go on to form intense emotional bonds with DC characters like Stephanie Brown and Tim Drake, and when I ventured off to college, I made sure to take my beloved Archives with me.
College was an odd time for me. Dad had been diagnosed with cancer a year or two before I graduated, and I felt guilty for leaving Mom behind—but, shamefully, relief that I wouldn’t have to deal with that situation on a daily basis. While I poured my brain into poetry and running a radio station, Dad slowly deteriorated. Just past midnight on New Year’s Day 2012, he died in hospice. I spent the next semester TAing a comics course before graduating in May.
A few years later, I was trying to write some Bat-article and flipping though that Dark Knight volume for reference material. My eye landed on the title page and took in that signature I’d dismissed as a child. The gaze of an adult student of comics history reveals much: was that a “J” that began the first name? And perhaps…an “R” to start the last? I fled to Google, where a shaky-fingered image search revealed the truth. This signature belonged to no middle manager nor editorial assistant; it was Jerry Robinson, the creator of that hideous clown whose antagonism sparked my love of comics two decades before.
Before that moment, I’d never realized exactly what my father gave to me, but it wasn’t just a nicely-bound collection of Golden Age stories. He gave me comics: from Robinson’s Joker to Kelly’s Pogo and Trudeau’s Doonesbury, he gave me a visceral connection to one of the finest art forms known to history. So Dad, thanks—for the book, and for everything else it gave me along the way.