Friday, May 18, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 1): Tearing Down Walls

You know you loved it.
It happens all the time. I'm talking to someone, we start discussing comics, and this look comes into their eyes. Occasionally, it's a condescending glance that says, "Comics? Aren't those for kids? Or musky nerds living in their parents' basements?" Which is always easy to deal with; I have no qualms about dismissing dismissive people. But most often, the look I see in people's eyes when discussing comics is a kind of self-conscious embarrassment. It's almost as if they're afraid of being called out. They might enjoy the idea of comics, they probably loved the Avengers or Dark Knight, and they almost certainly have a favorite superhero or two, but I suspect many people are timid around the subject of comics, because they only know them through movies or cultural osmosis. In a time when comics are pushing their way into the mainstream, many people haven't read the source material (I'm convinced nobody has read all of it), so they feel like a casual fan, an unread fake, as if their enthusiasm isn't valid or won't hold up in conversation with "real fans."

If you've ever felt like this, let me let you in on a little secret: there are no "real fans." Or more accurately, we're all real fans. You have just as much of a right to enjoy The Avengers as the guy who's been reading Marvel stuff since he was a kid. And you have just as much right to enjoy comics. They belong to everyone, not everyone else. And they're worthwhile. Neil Gaiman (if you don't know him, you will) is always explaining to people that "comics are not a genre; they're a medium." In other words, they're like books and movies themselves, not certain types of book or movies. Comics are an "empty jar" that you can put any kind of story inside. They are the container, not the contents.  For example, if you don't like superheroes (yet), that doesn't mean you don't like comics. Maybe you just prefer horror comics, or romance comics, or literary comics, or historical comics...the list goes on.

To put it another way, comics are just a storytelling form, a canvas. Like any canvas, you can use them to paint something genius or you can slap down a pile of complete shit; comic writers and artists have done plenty of both over the years. As a reader, it's just a matter of sorting the bad from the good, learning about yourself, discovering what you like. And if you're still tempted to say, "I just don't like comics," I'm going to boldly disagree with you. I'm going to put my foot down and claim I know you better than you know yourself. Because you're a human, baby, and we love pictures almost as much as we love stories. Keep an open mind through this blog series, and I guarantee you'll find something you like. (If you don't, I'll let you put on a glove and punch me in the face as hard as you can.*) And in the process, you might discover you like the shape stories take when you put them in comics form. You might discover a whole new way to entertain and enlighten yourself. That's worth a little time and effort. (I certainly think it's worth the effort of writing this post.)

This brings me to another objection I run into. It's not very often that someone articulates it, but I'm convinced it's there all the same. It is the fear of being one of them. You know who I'm talking about. The guy in the faded Transformers t-shirt with the sweat stains. The thick glasses. The bad facial hair. The nasal voice jabbering on and on about power levels and release dates and a bunch of other shit that just. really. doesn't. matter. I'm sure just about anybody who has spent time on the internet and interacted with--ugh--"fandom" has entertained this stereotype.
This isn't what it looks like.

First of all, shame on both of us. Follow along with me: Extend your right hand and firmly swat the top of it with your left. Can we agree it's bad to play the judgmental asshole? Even the most awkward of comic book fans are real people. For all we know, some of those guys are going through a hard time, not doing well socially, getting older and wondering if they're going to end up alone, having a tough time adapting to adult life. Can you blame them? It's tough out there, so who are we to look down on them for taking solace in something they enjoy? Nobody is who, because we do the same different ways perhaps, but we do them. And do you know why comics become a solace for people on the fringes of society? Because comics are a fundamentally human form of expression; they touch us. The move us.They can provide us a community to belong to. They can even heal us. (Have you ever heard someone say, "Music saved my life." Boom. Art is powerful, and comics--in every way that matters--are art.) These are good things. Let's not waste another minute looking down on other people; all that accomplishes is robbing us of the freedom to enjoy something truly enjoyable. So don't worry about looking like somebody else or being lumped into such-and-such category. Just have fun, and realize that reading comics doesn't make you who you are...and for that matter, neither do other people's opinions of your hobbies. Life is too short not to love things like a kid.

And if it makes you feel better (I don't mind reminding myself of this from time to time), there are so many talented, intelligent, socially-adept (even sexy?) people who read and write and draw comics, it blows my mind. I don't know who you are, but I'd put money on the fact that you're not as cool as Neil Gaiman. If he likes comics, you can like comics. I'm sure Neil would even give you his permission. (Go ask him on his twitter if you don't believe me.)
There's always someone cooler than you...
...unless you're Neil Gaiman.

But what if you don't have time? Or money? What if you'd love to get into comics, but you just can't squeeze it into your life. Fair enough. But if you can find time in your day to watch TV, to check your Facebook, to read this much-longer-than-I-anticipated blog post, chances are you can find some time to try something new. If you ever find yourself saying, "There's nothing on TV," that might be a great moment to pick up comics. Because in the comic world you pick what you read, and something good is always, always on.

So if you're willing to give it a shot, if I've sufficiently hounded you into trying this comics thing out, I'd love to be your guide for the next few weeks. I'd like to show you some different paths of getting into comics, some places to start, and you can decide which sounds right for you. Maybe you're a book snob (guilty!), and you want to read the best and brightest that comics have to offer. Maybe you love anime, but haven't really given Manga (Japanese comics) a chance. Maybe you love superheroes, and you want to know more about them, but you don't know where to start. We'll get to all of that in the coming weeks. And, of course, I'll be telling you about my own journey with comics.

After we get you good and hooked (or just comfortable and educated), I'll probably begin reviewing individual titles. But not yet. The next few weeks are all yours, my blog-reading friend. I, for one, can't wait to get started. :)


Don't forget, my next blog post (on Monday) will kick off a beginners' series on writing and selling fiction called "Chasing the First Sale." The next post in this series--"Owning Comics (Part 2): Begin with the Best"--will be up sometime around the middle of next week.

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