Comics/Graphic Novels

Cowabunga, Dude! Finding Childhood in Comics

Melody Schreiber

Staff Writer

Melody Schreiber is at work on a nonfiction anthology of premature birth. As a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., she has reported from nearly every continent. Her articles, essays, and reviews have been published by The Washington Post, Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, NPR, The Toast, Catapult, and others. She received her bachelor’s in English and linguistics at Georgetown University and her master’s in writing at the Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @m_scribe.

I envy those who fondly recall a childhood full of comics. I was a voracious reader, but I could only access books through my church, my homeschool curriculum, or my public library, which served a predominately Mennonite community. As you might imagine, the few comics I could find were pretty religious. I learned to read on an illustrated version of the Bible, and the single issues of comics I found focused on the dangers of drugs and the healing power of Jesus. If my brothers were reading cooler comics, they never shared them with me.

But some of my favorite movies of all time morphed out of the primordial ooze of comics. I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: their quirky attitudes, their commitment to social justice, and their devotion to family. We taped the movies when we had cable, and in the next few years we wore out the recordings by endlessly watching and rewinding.

There was much I identified with. The Turtles were isolated from much of the rest of the world, but they had their siblings to depend on. They were even homeschooled, like me! Yet they never seemed to feel like outsiders; at times they questioned where they came from and what they were, but they always knew who they were.

More than anything, I loved their attitude. My parents policed attitude; there was no greater sin in their book than a “bad attitude,” and countless TV shows and movies were banned on those grounds. But somehow the Turtles’ quips made it through. “Pizza dude’s got 30 seconds!” my siblings and I would shout, racing around the living to reenact our favorite scenes.

So, it only made sense when I began reading comics as an adult that my first book would be the trade volume of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It’s odd how something so familiar can feel so new. I was surprised at large and small details: how the color of their bandannas was the same for all the turtles, instead of distinguishing each individual. The panels seemed so serious and joke-free. Casey Jones didn’t appear in the first volume at all, and April, I was shocked to learn, wasn’t even a TV reporter. (My choice to pursue journalism as a career is founded on lies!) The Turtles are still committed to protecting each other and Splinter; once Shredder is defeated, they move on to battling social ills, like an inventor who robs banks with rat-eating robots.

These weren’t really the storylines I grew up with, and they seemed… well, childish. The Turtles are serious about the fight against evil, but the formulaic plots and predictable reactions fell a little flat. As an adult reader, there was little to spark my imagination. Maybe, I wondered, the TMNT comics would have been best kept in the past. Maybe I’d missed my chance at childlike wonder.

But then I began thinking about my fondest memories of the Turtles. They don’t come from the movies, anyway. They come from adapting the stories with my brothers, ad-libbing lines and creating new and sillier catchphrases. We took the storyline and made it our own.

That is why reading in general is so magical. You find characters and settings and ideas compelling, and then you bring them to life. It’s what I would have done if I could have gotten my grubby little paws on a copy of the TMNT comics as a kid. The panels would have been just another jumping-off point for my imagination.

Sometimes, it’s not what you find in a story; it’s what you bring to it.

In fact, I realized, this was actually a great book to start my comics obsession. It reminded me that opening a book is really about unleashing my imagination. And that’s true at any age.


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