Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
In 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.
The 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.
Then 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.
Compared 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.
In 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.
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