There is an understanding in my parents’ house that if my dad or I puts on a show or movie that could in any way be viewed as an entry into the sci-fi or fantasy genres, Mom will not tolerate it. She hates UFOs. She hates space. She hates superheroes.
This has never been so much a wedge between us as a teachable moment, though. While Dad and I could talk for hours about classic 80s X-Men storylines and what superhero blockbusters we’re most excited for this summer (Apocalypse, duh), it takes a little more effort on my part to engage my mom in a conversation about the titles I’m reading or the characters who have inspired me. For her, comics are mostly superheroes, and they are entirely not for her.
So it’s strange to remember the irrefutable fact that it was Mom who bought me my first comic books. When I was seven or eight, we were one day waiting to pay for our groceries at the store. I can’t remember which candy bar I undoubtedly tried to sneak into the cart, or which of us first spotted the tiny Archie Comics books, about the size of Reader’s Digest and tucked in amongst the alien-baby tabloids, but we brought one home, and that was the day I fell in love with comic books.
When she was a kid, Archie was the only comic my mom read, and I think they still hold such a special place in her heart because of what Archie wasn’t — it wasn’t horrific tales full of Code-approved gore, and it had nothing to do with feats of derring-do. The Riverdale High gang worried about life, love, and hamburgers. Maybe for my mom — and for whoever bought her the comics, or gave her the money for them — they didn’t exactly count as comic books.
My mom grew up after the 1950s anti-comics hysteria that swept the well-meaning educators, doctors, and parents of American suburbia, courtesy of Dr. Frederic Wertham. But history tells us that the misunderstanding of comics and comics culture lingered, remaining, at least in part, to this day. Comic books were fantastical, their stories woven with science fiction. Stories about teens in love weren’t the enemy; depictions of crime and horror were.
And because I am my mother’s daughter, I basically spent every waking moment reading my Archie books. I have very clear memories of curling up in bed with them at night or sprawling out in the backyard or in the sand at the beach and drooling over Jughead’s hamburgers. I snuck my comics into the shower, propping them up on the shower caddy to read while I washed my hair, because I couldn’t bear to be apart from them. Yes, they got a little soggy, but the wavy pages and curled covers only made me love them more.
By the end of elementary school, my Archie frenzy had come to an end. Sometime in 2000 or 2001, my dad sat me down to watch the first X-Men movie, and all of my reading, writing, and daydreaming turned to all things sci-fi, fantasy, action, and superheros in matching black leather suits. As I got older, I could talk old books and black and white movies with my mom, but comics became my dad’s realm. We would have to beg to go see the summer blockbusters for Father’s Day, or wait until Mom worked late to discuss characters I didn’t quite understand.
But there’s hope for Mom and me. When I started watching The Walking Dead, it took mere days to get my mom hooked, too, and when I mentioned the show was based on a popular series, she gave the first enormous compendium a try. A few years ago, I read Maus for a college course, and when I explained the concept to my mom, she said she might like to try reading it. (And she won’t admit it, but she wasn’t just sitting in the room when I happened to be watching Agent Carter — she was totally paying attention this year.)
In those moments, I like to think that I helped my mom to understand that comic books — and whatever media comes along with them — aren’t just for kids, and they aren’t just “for boys,” and that they can tell stories about real lives, about fictional characters, and, yes, about people in capes. Whatever story you’d like to read, it’s out there — or I wager that it will be. You might just need someone to hand you that first gateway title.
There’s also the fact that one of her favorite movies is X-Men: First Class. So I just might make a comic book fan out of Mom yet.