Our Reading Lives: Stuffy Academics Love Comics, Too
Every comics lover has his or her own dear-to-the-heart “birth story.” The exact day, week, or summer we fell into loving this medium. Whether we holed up in a childhood bedroom with a box of single issues we still cherish or we came to comics later in life, this passion sticks…hard.
I wasn’t enthralled with superheroes growing up. The exception was the 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which was well into reruns by the time I found it. I desperately wanted to be Catwoman. Or Batgirl. Anyone wearing a sparkly leotard, really. Aside from that childhood obsession, I didn’t have a significant frame of reference for comics. I knew they existed and that superheroes lived in their pages, but none of my friends or family were actively reading comics. On the whole, the DC and Marvel universes passed me by completely. I was familiar with the characters, mostly from films or Saturday morning cartoons, but not with comic books themselves.
No, my birth into the comics world was something far different. Thanks to an online book discussion group in my early 20s and one pushy blogger friend, I picked up Art Spiegelman’s Maus. In truth, I gave it a chance because it was the winner of a special Pulitzer Prize. Back in those days, on the cusp of a graduate degree in English, I was your typical literary snob and without my friend, the trusted reader, and a big ole sparkly award, I might never have picked it up.
Upon opening the book, I wasn’t terribly excited about what I’d gotten myself into. To peruse Spiegelman’s illustrations was to live in a small, dark space. The panels were uniformly sized, so consistent as to be monotonous, and the drawings within each one were busy and crowded. I felt closed in. Trapped. I have to hand it to Spiegelman, he really nailed the atmosphere. Once I could open my mind a crack, I realized that he wanted me to feel that way. Crowded, noisy, overwhelmed. My illustration preferences tend toward more open artwork…more negative space. I love it when characters and the story’s action pop out of the frames and splash all over the page. I didn’t know that then, but Spiegelman certainly introduced me to the importance and power of pacing, spacing, and the amount of ink in one panel…in a series of them. One feverish trip through Maus’s Holocaust and the visual metaphor of humans as animals and I was sold on comics. It was so stinking smart.
Next up was Marjane Satrapi’s, Persepolis, the two-volume story of growing up in revolutionary Iran. Satrapi, with a spare visual style and clean black and white illustrations, transformed me into a comics evangelist. A tryst with Bill Willingham’s Fables series and a deep love of the traditional folk tales behind it, and I was determined to be an expert in this new world. Willingham’s work was my first run-in with what I consider a grittier, traditional comics style with superhero’esque physiques, a touch of the tawdry, and dramatic noir elements.
Soon after taste-testing comics, I started my graduate degree in English, and I couldn’t let them go. My first class was on fairy tales and the oral tradition and since I’d just started Fables, it seemed like a natural topic to write about. With my professor’s enthusiasm behind me, I realized that studying comics for a living was a legitimate academic and research pursuit. It was on the cusp, mind you, of what the academe considered “serious.” I was always a sucker for bastardized literatures. In short, comics changed my life. For some of my professors, working with me was their first real trip through comics and graphic novels. We were learning together, studying, and we began to educate others with conference presentations, reviews, and papers. Suddenly a hobby was a lifestyle and people cared what I had to say about it.
I started to closely analyze the relationship between text and images. I began to really see what the creators wanted me to see. The ironies, the additional layer of storytelling that comes with images. Then I began to comment and hypothesize about what was going on in my favorite comics from an academic standpoint. It was a whole new type of reading experience. It was a whole new kind of ownership and feeling of belonging to the medium.
But there’s a thing I’ve noticed in the comics world because this mode of reading and storytelling is powerfully, bone-crushingly dear to so many people. One’s personal history matters. Sharing personal stories about being assimilated into comics allows fans to quickly and mentally shuffle a new acquaintance into the correct category of comics seriousness and fan legitimacy.
To be an individual coming to comics through the labyrinth of academia is a little like having three heads. Lifelong comics lovers look at me funny sometimes. I don’t have a childhood, adolescence or lifetime of love for these books behind me, but I speak the truth when I say that I made up for lost time as quickly as I could.
There are all these assumptions about comics and the culture of fandom surrounding them. We all know the general public can have the mistaken idea that comics are less than serious. Maybe even just “kid stuff.” We all know the stigma; we’ve experienced the public distrust, but within the community my birth into comics itself is not very serious. Or perhaps sometimes the stuffy cloud that hangs over academia gives people the impression that we want to own what is not ours. As recently as 2007, my thesis chair was arguing with me over “graphic novel” vs. “graphic album” as the appropriate term for “these things with lots of single issues in them,” while the comics community seems ok with “trades.” If we’d cast the net a little wider, maybe we would’ve known, but we do a lot of arguing over words in academia. That part will never change.
One thing I know for sure, is that since I’ve been part of Panels, I’m reading things I’ve never read before, and I’m surrounded by people who are accepting of all “levels” of comics reading. That’s probably why you’re here on this site this very minute. Maybe you’re an old hat at comics or maybe you have no idea where to begin.
Personally, my ereader is stuffed with everything from Locke and Key, Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, and Guardians of the Galaxy. And maybe She-Hulk. Every comic I open has something to offer. Some slight nuance in language or the placement of its panels. Some rub between what’s being said and what’s being shown. Layers of storytelling to be explored more than once. It’s an ever-expanding world, a growing experience, and more fun than almost any other reading. I’m glad we’re all here to talk it over.
Cheers to you, comics lovers…enthusiasts, academics, and lifers alike. Thank you for having me.