Portrait of the comic book reader as an old man
Famous 19 May birthdays: Atatürk, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, Pol Pot (boo!), Pete Townshend, Andre the Giant … [RECORD SCRATCH] … Greg Burgas?!?!?
Yes, today is my birthday, and not only that, it’s my 40th birthday. That means I’m officially old and can begin my new career as cantankerous old man in earnest (up until now I was in the minor leagues of cantankerousness, but now I’m getting called up the show!). Good times!
A few months ago, I was thinking about a post about reading comics and what it does for the reader, but I decided to put off posting it until I turned 40, because it seemed like a good time to reflect. I don’t feel particularly old; I’m wider around the waist than I was 20 years ago, to be sure, but I don’t feel particularly “grown up,” even though I have plenty of grown-up responsibilities and like to think I handle them fairly well. I don’t know if my parents or grandparents felt grown up when they were 40, but I have begun to wonder why exactly I don’t feel like an adult. One reason, I’ve concluded, is comics.
Comics have an odd capacity of making me feel young. It’s not that I read a lot of comics for children or young adults, because I don’t. I read some childish comics that pretend to be “mature,” but those actually don’t make me feel young, they make me feel old, because I get vexed by the fact that some comics stubbornly refuse to grow up. If I can grow up, why can’t comics? But good comics bring something to me that no other form of entertainment can, and it seems to me like that endless variety keeps me searching for new ways to express myself, which is part of what keeps me young. If that makes any sense.
Whenever I read a good comic book, no matter what genre, I get a sense of the possibilities of the medium, and it thrills me. It has been a long time since a movie thrilled me like a lot of comics do. I just saw Thor, and while it was okay, it was just kind of there. I don’t see as many movies as I used to, of course, but even movies that I really like tend not to thrill me all that much. But I can think of plenty of comics I’ve read recently that do so. Even something I’ve read a few times, like Nextwave, still has that capacity. It’s amazing to me that more people don’t understand this and aren’t swept away by it. Most people I meet don’t read comics, of course, which is fine, but I do pity them just a little. I was speaking with a friend of my mother’s yesterday who was asking me about comics. She, of course, thought they were just superhero things, and when I told her I just read a comic about Lewis and Clark (Nick Bertozzi’s latest, which I’ll review here soon), she was taken aback and said she didn’t know comics were about stuff like that. I told her comics could be about anything they wanted! And that’s the point. Comics, more than a lot of entertainment media, are infinitely variable. For some things, prose is much better, but for superhero stuff (for instance), comics kick ass. Even something like well-done historical fiction (like Lewis & Clark) is interesting to read in comic-book form, because Bertozzi can show us what the cities and the wilderness looked like while a prose author can only describe it. Does that mean my imagination sucks because I don’t picture it myself? Maybe, but I doubt it. I read plenty of prose, after all, and nobody claims watching movies kills your imagination (well, maybe they do, but they’re kooky people like my wife).
This capacity for amazement in comics is, I think, what helps me retain a childlike marvel at the world even though I’m a bitter, twisted, crotchety old man who thinks kids today suck (and should get off my lawn). I can’t remain cynical when I see great artists and great writers combine to show us a world we might never have imagined on our own or even show us a way of looking at the familiar that skews our perceptions. Comics helps us look at the world in a different way from many different points of view. There are few visionaries in mainstream movies these days, which is unfortunate. But there are plenty of visionaries in comics, even in the mainstream, although they might not work as often as I’d like. Artists force us to alter our perspective, while writers introduce us to pseudo-science that might, just might, lead us to actual science (as well as give us new words – I would never have known what an “oubliette” or an “orrery” was if I hadn’t read Grant Morrison comics). Many novels I read these days take themselves way too seriously (a book I just finished was praised for taking literature seriously, which I found was a fault in the narrative, frankly), but even the most serious comics often take time out to wink at the audience and say, yeah, this is just entertainment, isn’t it. It’s part of the medium’s charm.
I know there are other factors that go into me feeling young. People today have access to better health care than in the past, for one thing. I know my kids help keep me young, because although I know some parents feel old when their kids start growing up and going to school, I feel the opposite, especially with regard to my younger daughter, whose love of learning and inquisitive nature helps me stay curious. The fact that I don’t face the grind of a tedious job is a good factor, too. But comics contribute to this feeling. It’s not just the comics themselves, it’s also meeting creators at cons who are so enthusiastic about their work. The creative urge is refreshing, and while I’m a loser for not working harder to get my stuff published, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel that urge as well. Comics have actually helped inspire me to write more, because whenever I think I’m out of ideas, I read something in a comic book that shows me something new. More than novels or movies or music, comics are wildly democratic and infinitely malleable. And they keep changing, mostly for the better.
So I’m 40. But I don’t feel old. I feel rejuvenated, which is an ongoing process, and comics play a big part in that. And when I crack open the next one, I’m confident I’ll find something else that thrills me. And I’ll feel young and powerful and excited about the world. And that’s a pretty great feeling to have.