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Committed: Comics without Capes

012010_asterixIn talking to my American comic book reading friends, I’m beginning to see that my experience of comic books is pretty different from theirs. While they grew up watching superhero cartoons on TV and buying the superhero comics that went along with them, I didn’t have much access to either of those mediums so I took another route.

012010_aragonesmarginalsThe first and only comic books I saw were the ones that the adults around me had, and it was a pretty wide variety. My parents had a stash of old paperbacks; compilations of Peanuts (which I loved even before I could read, because I could relate to the little kids) and MAD magazine (Sergio Aragonés’ Marginal Thinking was always my favorite.) Often my parents would visit friends, and I’d come along but have nothing to do, so I would snoop around while the adults ate. Some of my earliest memories are of pawing through strange adults’ bookshelves and magazine racks, diligently searching for cartoons in comics and books, while they made boring small talk. I loved drawings, and I’d read whatever I could find that had drawings in it, anything at all. I read their Jules Feiffer books (incredibly emotive and strangely beautiful, even if I had no idea what they were about), New Yorker cartoons (confusing), and best of all those rare copies of Asterix and Tintin. These were particularly prized for their observations of all the european countries, which made me enjoy being schlepped along my nomadic parent’s trips that much more. We visited friends in Italy and I laughed at Asterix in Switzerland (wherein the Swiss are very clean and obsessed with fondue) or visiting friends in Germany I read Asterix in Britain (where at 4pm, the British soldiers stopped fighting the Romans to drink hot water with milk every day). Honestly, a lot of the humor in all of these books went over my head, but there was plenty to keep me happy and I was grateful to have the diversions.

012010_feiffer1Then one day, my dad unearthed something entirely different. Under a pile of magazines in the junk room he pulled out some really old copies of the Uncanny X-Men, true teen superheroes in their earliest incarnation. I can’t have been very old, maybe 7, but they had a huge impact on me. This was my first experience of American superhero comic books and I was hooked. He had Avengers, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, a whole slew of flashy superhero comics were stashed in amongst all of that paper clutter.

Usually, when I talk about comic books now, I’m talking about superhero comics. Not because the non-superhero ones aren’t comic books, but because they were so much less of a challenge to read, in terms of availability, affordability, and acceptability. Growing up and having such a hard time finding American comic books, as well as having to put up with people reviling them (the thinking seemed to be that since capes were stupid, anyone reading them must be too), they became more precious for me. Without any specialty comic shops, the ones that I could find on my own were a pretty mixed bag. It was hard to follow story lines or stick with any authors, but it was still incredibly fun to read.

012010_2000adCompared to the more socially acceptable comic books I’d grown up with, superhero comic books felt like more of a rebellion.  With the glossy covers and bold colors they seemed terribly exciting. While my American friends might have loved to get their hands on the rough and ready copies of The Beano or 2000AD that were everywhere, all I wanted was more of that brash superhero stuff. Every weekend, I scoured every little crappy newsagent and sweet shop in walking distance, looking through their meager selection of comics to find the odd issue of the Hulk, or Teen Titans. Always out of continuity, stupidly overpriced, and totally worth it. If I hadn’t found my dad’s old Marvel and DC comic books to guide me, who knows if I’d have gotten hooked in the first place. But I did, and I wanted more.

When I was older and could finally shop in special comic stores, I ate up all of those juicy superhero comics. At that point, I wasn’t even really registering who published what (and I’ll admit right now, that I still couldn’t give a toss about publishers) so I wasn’t really consciously drawing a line between superhero and non-superhero, I just liked my comics flashy and action-packed. That’s probably why I didn’t really think twice about picking up a copy of Love and Rockets one day. Looking at the pages, I saw art and stories that embraced more of the same values that I’d been enjoying elsewhere – dynamic lines depicting excellent fantasy-based action (I think this must have been back in the mechanics days), all contained in a colorful, glossy cover. It had so many elements of science fiction and fantasy, I didn’t delineate between it and my favorite superhero books. But it wasn’t the same, it was something different from the superhero comics that I’d been reading, and different from the non-superhero books that I’d grown up with.

012010_maggieIn retrospect, Love and Rockets is the first non-superhero comic book that I bought on purpose with my own money, not because there weren’t other alternatives, but because I wanted to read about those women and their strange adventures. There’ve been other independent and non-superhero comic books since then, plenty actually, but Love and Rockets was my first, and I still get a huge kick out of each new issue.

When I moved out of my parents house and left my comics behind, it never occurred to me that, just as other adult’s comic books had inspired me to read, my abandoned collection would do the same. But years later when my brother finally started reading, one of the first things that he did was dive into my old comic books. I’d get phone calls asking what ever happened to the final issues of Alpha Flight (I stopped buying it), or if Maggie’s story ever came to any conclusion (“what happened to her?” he’d ask me emphatically), or why I’d only had some of Excalibur (like a lot of people, I only liked the Alan Davis issues.) And when I went back and visited my parents, I discovered that my brother had even taken some of the books that he deemed to be of a higher quality and put them on his own shelves “to keep them safe” (I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back V for Vendetta or Elektra Assassin. Isn’t possession nine tenths of the law?). He’d developed his own comic book addiction, just as I had, through reading other people’s forgotten comic books.

These days, it’s incredibly easy to read a wide variety of comic books now through downloads, reprints, compilations, and translations. You can pretty much read from any where or time. The main thing — maybe the most important thing — is to have them around in whatever format possible for potential new readers to discover and, hopefully, embrace.  Just like I did.

26 Comments

I grew up in the UK reading pretty much nothing but The Beano, The Dandy, those old enormous Whizzer & Chips bumper books, Asterix and Tintin, so superhero comics were always a really weird commodity when I encountered them. I can’t even remember the titles or characters, just the sense of disappointment at how humourless it all was, just a bunch of guys running around talking to themselves and getting into fights.

It was only really in my teens that I started hearing on messageboards about Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen that I decided to investigate the world of capes properly, but I still don’t immediately think of superheroes when I think of comics. Which is a good thing, I think.

I lived in Germany when I was 7-8, so I read Asterix, some Tintin, my cool-ass Playmobil comic, and these hardcover books of British comics that ranged from war stories to (I’m not kidding) a story about a badger. Man, badgers are awesome. I don’t think I still have them, and I can’t remember where they were originally published, but they were pretty cool. One of the few things I remember about them is that the writer always used “Pong!” to indicate something that stunk, which made no sense to me. Those weird British idioms!!! Unlike you, however, I never made a transition to superhero comics right away. When I moved back to the U. S., I stopped reading comics. It wasn’t until a decade later that I started again. I’m not sure why I stopped.

Very nice column, Sonia. I had almost exactly the same experience growing up in Ireland, desperate to get my hands on rare US Marvel Comics. And driving my parents mad every time we went on holiday to the UK, insisting we drop into each and every newsagent…

The column is titled Comics Without Capes and the first picture has a cape in it. I giggle in happy giggleness!

I’m really enjoying your columns, Sonia. I read what you write and I think “Exactly!” a lot. And you have love for Love and Rockets. And I love anyone with love for Love and Rockets!

I must admit that I simply love my superhero comics. BUT, my very first exposure to comics was in the Dentist’s office when I was little, and it was Asterix. In French no less. But I was still fascinated. I graduated to Lucky Luke, read the Classics Illustrated, and then discovered Marvel and DC, not to mention Corto Maltese and Lt. Blueberry.

Comics in ANY form are just GOOD!

The first comics I read regularly were Disney and Looney Tunes comics of the 1970s and early 80s. I also encountered the horror comics of that period, which scared me so much that I avoided anything that didn’t have a cartoon character on it. I think this helped me avoid becoming a superhero fanboy until I went to college; this helped give me a more objective, skeptical take on superheroes that could be useful to me if I ever write superhero comics.

My beginning was with Disney characters too (hugely popular in Brazil at the time) and some other Brazilian-produced kid comics. I discovered Marvel/DC when I was 13, and it was instant love. I don’t think I ever touched a “cartoon” comic ever again.

It’s interesting how things differ from country to country. Here in Brazil, no genre or type of comics was seen as more socially acceptable than any other. They were all considered kid stuff, but perhaps not with the bad stigma that they have in the US.

In Brazil, a person that is an avid reader of anything (even if it’s self-help books or kiddie comics) is more respected than someone who never reads or reads only infrequently.

I hear ya on this one.

I used to steal the Peanuts collections from my grandma’s house all the time, and I still have a lot of them. My dad allowed me to read Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side when I was 8, and I didn’t really think about buying superhero comics until I got the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man for free when I saw the movie. I subscribed to that for a while, got sick of it, and then got Looney Tunes from DC for 2 years. Really, I’ve read a lot more non-supes comics then supes ones, and that suits me just fine,

Here in Puerto Rico we used to get translations of American Comics from the 70s- DC’s, Harvey, Gold Key, Archie, everything except, for some reason, Marvel. In addition we also received plenty of original Mexican comics, which were just as good: Kaliman, a Hindu superhero; Memin, a comedy about a poor black boy and his friends; Fantomas, a heroic thief (based on an a French character, actually, though I didn’t find that out until years later); Chanoc, a Tarzan-like character turned into a fisherman ( his series also turned from adventure into a Simpsonesque comedy, quite a shift in tone but still fun) and more. As a kid I enjoyed them equally; as I grew up I found Casper and his ilk too silly and mostly focused on superheroes (except for Memin, I followed it religiously.) As an adult, I’m more open-minded, but in general most American independent comics don’t interest me much; it’s as if they’re trying SO hard to not be “mainstream” that they go too far the other way. Too bad, because there’s some really good concepts being published. Oh, and Mexican comics stopped coming here in the 80s; I know many of them were cancelled, but I assume others must still be published over there.

My comic education began much like your own. I would rummage in my parent’s basement where my dad had a very bast collection of european comic books. Tintin, Astérix, Lucky Luke, Les 4 As, Achille Talon and many more. He also had some Garfield and Peanuts reprints. At first I would mostly look at the pictures and read some of the dialogue, but never the caption boxes, those were boring! After I have ‘read’ all of them a few times I started to read them again, but I actualy read this time, not just look at the pictures. They were much better than what I had remember. In short, it was only much later in my life that I discovered american comic books.
Good times all around.

I love the “Maggie and the Mechanics” era of Love and Rockets. As great as Jaime’s work evolved to be, I would have been totally happy with him doing that for years on end.

I’m surprised by the fact that Tintin and Asterix are considered rare in the US. In Australia, Tintin and Asterix are some of the easiest comics to get your hands on, especially for kids, as there are several volumes of each in practically every library in the country. You certainly couldn’t say that about any comic by DC or Marvel.

Tintin was one of the first comics I read a kid, and I still consider it one of the two greatest comic series of all time (the other one being Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese). When I think of my childhood in Finland in the 80s and early 90s, I think it was a good thing that all sorts of comic books were translated into Finnish: we had Disney comics (by far the most popular type of comics in Finland, Carl Barks is practically a demi-god in here), classic Euro comics such as Tintin and Asterix and Spirou & Fantasio, superheroes (X-Men and Spider-Man were especially popular among kids in the 80s), Judge Dredd and other 2000AD titles, and of course local comics. And when I entered my early teens, and wanted to expand into more adult-oriented comics, those were easy to find at the local library too: stuff by Hugo Pratt, Didier Comes, Frank Miller, Claire Bretécher, Alan Moore, Muñoz & Sampayo, Will Eisner, etc was all available in Finnish. Later on, when I got to know American comic book readers, I was surprised to find out that the American comic book market seems to be way more self-centred than the Finnish one. I had imagined that in a country the size of the US, all the comics I’d read as a kid plus thousands more would available as local editions. But from what I’ve gathered, classic comics by people like Franquin, Ralf König, Hugo Pratt, or Mézières & Christin, whose works have been translated extensively into Finnish and are well-loved among Finnish comic readers, are quite obscure in the US, or have never been translated into English at all. I don’t want to sound like a snooty European here, but I find it sad if the self-contained nature of American comic book market stops people from discovering great comics made outside the US.

My addiction to comics was given a helping hand by the fact that my father owned a post office/newsagent for a short time (in the UK). This meant FREE comics in the way of Whizzer and Chips, Beano, Star Wars Weekly, Doctor Who Weekly, etc! It was only once I picked up Dark Knight Returns shortly after it was traded that I was really turned on to superheroes.

My dad also owned an ice cream parlour, so I guess I had the perfect childhood. Free comics and ice cream, I was the most popular kid in school baby!

Growing up in Southern Africa (Lesotho, to be exact) we had a wonderful mix of comics that we were exposed to. The Beano, the re-launched Eagle (with the Doomlord photostrip), Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke, the Smurfs and a bunch of Marvel and DC reprints…

We also had a HUGE variety of the War Picture LIbrary/Battle Picture Library digests…

I still maintain that Tintin in particular helped me learn to read.

That early grounding in “non-caped” comics also meant that while I thought Dark Knight Returns was cool, I didn’t find it quite as ground-breaking as Watchmen…

It also meant that I really enjoyed Marshall Law by Mills and O’Neill, and didn’t feel like they were “raping my childhood”…

The dodgy Tintin rip-offs on the other hand did make me feel dirty…

You have also reminded me that I need to start reading 2000AD again. I let my subscription lapse last year as a money-saving idea, and have really been missing it.

The Tintin hardback series (the run which included Congo and Alph Art) is a great collection. I’m going to buy the full-sized series all over again for my kids when they are a little older (hard backs, definitely, will last longer) and Asterix of course (but possibly stopping after The Magic Carpet)…

I hope it’s okay for me to chime in here, even though I’m an American. I also read mostly non-superhero stuff when I first started, although I read superhero books, too. I was mostly into Harvey books when I first began reading comics. I especially loved Sad Sack and Hot Stuff. And for some reason, Richie Rich was the last Harvey book I tried, even though he made up more than half their output. But once I read one, I continued readin Richie, as well. And I did read Disney books, too, which were published by Gold Key at the time. But I tired of them quickly because they mostly weren’t very good. Except for some Uncle Scrooge and Junior Woodchucks stories. I wonder now if they might’ve been reprints of the old Carl Barks stories.
And I read a lot of Archie, which continued into my teenage years. I especially loved the digests, because you were always guaranteed of getting several good stories. I haven’t bought an Archie since the ’80s, but every now and then I consider the idea of picking one up.

And I did read Tintin when I was young. He was serialised in Children’s Digest. We only subscribed for a year, so the only story which I read completely through was ‘Cigars Of The Pharaoh’. It had a different title, but I’ve forgotten it. That’s strange, I know– I happened to see ‘adapted from “Cigars Of The Pharaoh”‘ down in the small print on the first page, and for some reason, that title stuck in my head, while the new title they gave it didn’t. That was the story that introduced Thompson and Thomson, so I guess it was an important one.

“I’m surprised by the fact that Tintin and Asterix are considered rare in the US. In Australia, Tintin and Asterix are some of the easiest comics to get your hands on, especially for kids, as there are several volumes of each in practically every library in the country. You certainly couldn’t say that about any comic by DC or Marvel.”

Interestingly enough, US is pretty much the single big western comics market where that happens!

I think the stereotype that comics should be cheap is still in force on the US (just see people screaming blood murder whenever there is a price hike) and high quality, expensive comics like Tintin and Asterix aren’t wecome.

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

I think the stereotype that comics should be cheap is still in force on the US (just see people screaming blood murder whenever there is a price hike) and high quality, expensive comics like Tintin and Asterix aren’t wecome.

Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that. I guess I don’t think of Tintin and Asterix as that expensive, given that they have so much reread value, but you may have a point. The other thing that I thought of was that, in Australia at least, we get a lot of things from the UK more directly than the US, or at least we used to. For instance the standard version of Monopoly in Australia is the one with London street names.

I read completely through was ‘Cigars Of The Pharaoh

If you’re going to read any Tintin you should read the sequel to Cigars, the Blue Lotus (although it isn’t that much of a sequel). It was the first Tintin were Herge moved past simple national stereotypes and started to become politically and culturally aware, as well as being the best Tintin, at least in my humble opinion.

I’ve read super hero comics all my life and for me comics = super herores. However, a few years ago I started taking French classes and to better my reading skills I bought a few French and Belgian comics. It totally changed my percepction of what a comic book is or rather what it CAN be. Fantastic art (in tabloid size hardbacks 60 pages long) incredible stories and great charcaters and… no super heroes. I still love american super hero comics of course, and always will, but there’s MORE out there. True comic lovers owe it to themselves to check them out.

Erik Larsen did a quite interesting column where he touches the “comics should be cheap” mentality of US comics and offers alternatives. Everyone should tale a look:
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24545

Erik doesn’t know, but that’s the way european comic magazines (not comic albums, they are two different things) have been done for years… And that the format is getting obsolescent for many reasons.

But for a backwards comics industry like the one on the US, that would actually be a progression.

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

I read Marvel and DC superhero comics nearly-exclusively these days, but I have to say I miss my eclectic comics-reading childhood, and I worry that not enough comic readers are familiar with some of the greatest storylines of all time that DON’T feature comics: the aforementioned Asterix and ESPECIALLY Tintin come to mind of course, as do Carl Barks’ and Don Rosa’s Uncle Scrooge comics, probably tied with Tintin as the best “superhero” comics not to feature real superpowers per se, with some of the most memorable villains… the only real superhero comics I had were an assorted of TMNT comics, many of which were quite strange in their own right, and the early Ditko-Lee Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volumes. And let’s not forget Bloom County and Doonesbury, two towering pillars of sequential writing and comic art. Really wonderful stuff. And the best “non-fiction” of comics of all time, Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe(s)…

Not that I’m going to kick my superhero habit anytime soon, but when I’m here at CBR I often wish my fellow posters were more familiar with this work, and that there was more demand for it.

oh, and I should mention, I’m an American, too. I just wasn’t raised on superhero comics, other than TMNT and Spider-Man. Oddly, I’m now 30, and basically understand the complete Marvel and DC universes. Weird progression, I guess!

I read comics for a while, but it wasn’t until I was travelling the UK as a 13yo that reading Captain Britain, British reprints of Secret Wars, and weird local equivalents, that I was really propelled (and role-playing helped).

W

Zephyr — a superhero webcomic in prose
http://wereviking.wordpress.com

Tom Fitzpatrick

January 26, 2010 at 5:02 am

Growing up in Canada, I was fortunate to read Tintin and Asterix books.

Micronauts and Star Wars were my first on-going collections. Then the Uncanny X-men and New Teen Titans.

Have you read the Dutch comic Franka?

Here’s her website:
http://franka.nl/

matthew robertson

January 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm

tintin was the first for me, although i love american comics and in the 80’s in a town without a comic book shop i would stalk every news agent to get copies of whatever marvel and dc i could get my hands on.

but i have great memories of battle, and commando comic books, starblazer, beano, hotspur, action. The revamp of the eagle with its photo stories brings a smile to my face…………………and of course 2000ad, where would the american comics industry be if pat mills did not come up with that baby, and a big thanks to hazelhead academy in aberdeen who had every copy of the look and learn? (probaly getting mixed up there) in the schools libary thats where i discovered the tirgan empire by don lawrence.

marvel uk, gotta love them in the 80’s with their magazine sized, black and white reprints of frank millers daredevil, and giving us captain britain by moore and davis, i think we had one of on our american cousins there.

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