Wednesday, July 16, 2008

If only Holden Caulfield had an evil clone: Everything I know about literature I learned from comic books.

I was an apathetic student in high school. Algebra was my regular nap period. Instead of reading The Return of the Native like I should have, I wasted my time pouring over The Amazing Spiderman and Uncanny X-Men until I’d memorized every POW! and SNIKT!

But I wound up winning an English scholarship in college, then publishing two novels of my own.

GLW’s mission is encouraging teenage boys to read. Since I was a teenage boy who became, not only a voracious reader, but such a fancy-pants writer I’m going to use the word “lyceum” in the next paragraph, I’m offering myself as a case study. So how did it happen? It was the comics all along, or more exactly, the constant, hydra-headed chatter of comic fandom.

My personal lyceum wasn’t English class, it was the comic shop--creatively named The Comic Shop--where I hung out after school. If you’ve never been in one, you need to understand that comic book stores are essentially bars for nerds, one of the few businesses that encourages customers to hang out.

Walk in, and people will be slumped on the big stinky couch (there’s a stinky couch in every comic shop I’ve ever gone to) and propped up against the counter. You won’t be sure who actually works there at first. Everybody has a nickname like Possum, Ha-Ha, or Creepy Dave. Regulars wander in with bags of fast food and no intention of buying anything. They’re just there to kick back on the stinky couch, kill an hour or two, and talk.

And talk and talk and talk.

You also need to understand that comic fans aren’t passive consumers. They may love a particular issue or hate it, but they’re going to be vocal about it either way. They’ll dissect plot arcs, character developments, and the internal logic of a comic, changes in costume and changes in tone, all the basic building blocks of a narrative. They will cite back issues as precedent. 

During the 90s, a new writer made Spiderman a more brooding character, often crouching on rooftops in the rain, following the then-current trend of more “grim and gritty” characters. I hated this new Spidermen and might have left it at that if one of my friends hadn’t challenged me. I liked other dark characters like Batman and the Punisher, he pointed out. What made Spiderman different? Why couldn’t he brood every now and then.

It took ten minutes to mumble a half-articulate answer, but it boiled down to, Spiderman can’t brood because Spiderman loves being a superhero. He cracks jokes during fights and introduces himself as “your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler.” Despite being a genius, he’s never built a supped-up car like the Batmobile because swinging through the city on web ropes is way more fun.

Other characters like Batman and The Punisher have been formed by tragedy. Other titles like the X-men focus on being persecuted for being different. But a central theme of Spiderman, as essential to the character as his costume, has always been that having superpowers would rock.

But my friend countered: Spiderman was formed by tragedy. His Uncle Ben was murdered. His shoulders sag heavy under the knowledge that with great power comes great responsibility.

My brain starting to hurt, I conceded this was true, then counter-countered. When Peter Parker first got his powers, all he wanted to do was show off. Because superpowers rock. When he sees the police chasing a thief, he doesn’t help since it’s not his job. Only after that thief murders Uncle Ben does he see that with great power comes great responsibility.

Both themes have been in play since the beginning. Tip the balance too far in one direction, and Spiderman stops being Spiderman. Hence, broody, rooftop-crouchy Spiderman blows.

I had to lay down for awhile after that. But by sixteen, without quite realizing it, I’d learned to break a story down to its component parts, turn them over in my mind, and say what worked and what didn’t, and most importantly, why. Once I could do that with comic books, I could do it with capital-L literature and eventually my own stuff.

Then there’s symbolism. By necessity, comics depend on signifiers to identify their characters, the silhouetted bat on Batman’s chest or the Joker’s white, green, and purple color scheme. The symbols aren’t static, though. They play off one another and pop up in unexpected places. At their best, they become a language of images.

The cover to the left trumpets, AT LONG LAST THE SECRET REVEALED! But even without any words, Superman’s red ‘S’ and Clark Kent’s black glasses are both so iconic, most people could immediately grasp the story promised inside.

In my own writing, I tend to rely heavily on reoccurring symbols. The pack’s combat boots in Unleashed and the phrase “leave everything behind” in Tripping to Somewhere appear over and over, but their exact meaning constantly shifts. This tendency came directly from years of reading comics.

Beyond a few tricks and concepts, though, the best thing I got from hanging out at The Comic Shop was being surrounded by people who loved stories. A comic that took 15 minutes to read could lead to hours or weeks of back-and-forth.

I drifted away from comics after high school, partly because I grew annoyed with how many of them fell back on cheap plot twists, killing a major character to generate buzz, then bringing them miraculously back to life whenever sales started flagging again. Nowadays, I’m finally reading stuff my English teachers would have approved of.

But when I finish a good book, and nobody’s around to praise it to or argue with, only silence, it always feels like something’s missing.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, the huge box of Superman comics circa my dad's childhood currently under my bed has also taught me enough to be the smartest kid in my religion class, because I know who both Sampson and Lazarus are.

In particular, Superbaby gave the best lesson I've ever heard. "Water make electric things stop working."

In our local comics store, which I think may have been recently demolished, I've gone in several times to find it occupied by people with severe body odor playing D&D (way to defy stereotypes, guys) and eating bonbons. I don't get the bonbons, but they do add a certain level of ridiculousness.

Joe Cottonwood said...

Nice post, interesting perspective. My own introduction to literature came through my father's cheap detective paperbacks with lurid covers and, ahem, lurid action. From them I got both a sex education and a set of literary values that were seriously at odds with what I was being taught in high school - and both of which needed some re-adjustment in the real world.

Colleen said...

I love my comic shop in Florida so much (Famous Faces & Funnies) that even though I live in the Pacific NW I still order regularly from them and they ship me a box every month.

It was wonderful - and a great place to spend an hour browsing and talking.

J Hofmockel said...

Thanks for a great post. I'm a high school librarian and I think it is so important to provide comics for kids to check out. We have a fantastic local comic shop and they are so helpful in my collection development. Several times a year, I send them a list of books I'm considering and they go through and tell me which ones are worth it, which ones to skip, and which titles I missed. It doesn't matter to them that they'll miss a sale if they tell me not to bother with half the books on any given list. They just want to help me find great books for the kids in my school. That's another sign of how great comic readers are.
My husband has been reading comics with my son pretty much since he could sit up on his own. Now he's four and loves to go with Dad on the weekly trip 'downtown' to the comic shop. I know that his love of comics will help him to become a more savvy reader.
Great new blog. Thanks to all involved.