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There’s nothing cool or sexy about reading comics. I mean it, and I should know, I’ve been reading them all my life, since I could only understand the pictures and wonder what the hell the words meant (but when the comic books you’re reading are your dad’s stolen Fat Freddy’s Cat, not being able to read detracts nothing). Up until very recently, my comic book habit was only just tolerated by most of my friends, I’d try to get them into it, giving them graphic novels and saying “Oh, I bought too many copies of Violent Cases, you might like it…” they didn’t). Time moves on, and now at least a few of them see the value of the medium, and I’m lucky to say that some of my friends are even fellow zealots.
But when I was the only little english girl in the playground who wanted to play X-Men, running around pretending to be Phoenix with my telekinetic powers, or the Hulk (I really enjoyed growling “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, and then roaring a whole bunch – who wouldn’t?), everyone else wanted to play Charlie’s Angels (and what were their superpowers? Long hair?) When people saw me reading Superman, or Love & Rockets, they balked. It quickly became pretty clear that comics weren’t socially acceptable. Even on my annual visits to America to visit my New York dwelling family, I only occasionally glimpsed a world of comic-influenced play, and that place was clearly reserved for the boys. I could ask to play with their Batman toys, coveting those batmobiles that actually shot little missiles (to this day I still fantasize about inheriting my dad’s), but owning my own superhero toys was a step too far into overt weirdo territory.
Nowadays, despite the growing popularity of comic books and the superhero medium, I haven’t really changed. Deep down, I’m still the quiet, sullen little girl I started out as, and as a similarly sullen teenager, I learned to become a single-minded comic maven. When the comic shop owners welcomed me into their shops, and then pointed me in the direction of the Wonder Woman and She-Hulk comics, I knew that they didn’t understand my taste at all. I wanted to read about disaster and mayhem, heroes and villains far outside of my reality like Sienkiewicz’s uber-dramatic New Mutants, and the deeply grim Killing Joke.
I still remember watching He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, and noticing that while he shouted “By the power of Greyskull! I have the power.”, she got to say only “For the honor of Greyskull! I am She-Ra”. Why did she only get to restate her bloody name, why couldn’t she embody power the way he did? Was she any less of a worthy vessel for power? No, this was an unacceptable option, and it was just one of the many very obvious ways in which I felt like I was getting a pretty weak option as a girl. Since there was no way that I was prepared to have any less of my potential (fantasy) superpowers just because of my lack of a penis, I gravitated towards the male characters of the comic book world like Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Miller’s Daredevil. Observation had shown me what the logical conclusion was, and no one’s insistence that (as a female) I ought to be reading Supergirl or Batgirl could sway me. I quickly learned to ignore others recommendations and keep my own counsel.
Times change. Fashion moves on, and apparently a lot of those kids who grew up reading game-changing books like Lone Wolf and Cub, Marshal Law, and Elektra Assassin, became movie-making adults, who’s taste is now influencing the mainstream. At least that’s one theory. Comic books are becoming popular and interesting to people because the one-time geeky outcasts of the world are now the creative movers and shakers of it.
Personally I prefer to think that it’s something far more fundamental than that. Comic books are one of the most potent and pure forms of communication that we have. Taking a medium as complex and contrived as the written language, and combining it with a most primitive and direct form of creative communication – drawing… This is an incredible medium. The archetypes created in comic books are so powerful that people cannot help but embrace them., we need this, and we naturally gravitate towards a certain kind of creative invention that exemplifies everything that is powerful, beautiful and graceful about our humanity and what we aspire to. Maybe comic books got some attention because we all grew up and kept talking about them, demanding and getting attention for them. But nothing would have happened if they weren’t an entirely mind-blowing synthesis of art and literature filled with dreams.
Right now, it is an era of the superhero, the mythical gods of our modern culture are everywhere, even within genres which are distinctly non superheroic. One day I woke up to a world filled with movies and fashions influenced by the very comic books that had made me such an outsider. All the time I see little kids playing at being super powered and adults reading graphic novels (or at least pretending to, which is even stranger – they’re pretending to like comic books in order to “belong”, which is the opposite of how it worked when I was a kid). Things have changed, and I’m glad of it, but deep down inside (and occasionally, pretty close to the damn surface too), out of necessity I had to learn to trust my own judgment on these sort of things, and I still do.
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