Straight up confession, here. I am a 43 year old man, and I still read comic books.
Of course, that’s not too big of a confession these days. Take a look at the box office receipts and you will see that the ranks of fanboys have taken over a good chunk of popular culture. Like most of America, my ass was in a movie seat for the Avengers within 3 days of its release, despite the fact that (for various reasons) when I saw it I was working on less than 4 hours sleep in the past 36 hours.
(Speaking of which . . . did I miss something while zoning out in the darkened theater? That entire second act, when Loki was in the SHIELD helicarrier . . . was there a point to any of that? I think that was just there to fulfill storytelling requirements, but why did he plan to get locked up in the first place? Was that ever explained?)
But I come by my fanboy biases honestly. When I was only about 4 years old my grandfather, who owned a bookstore, gifted me a trade paperback that reprinted the origin stories of Marvel’s greatest heroes: Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Dr. Strange . . . . And I pestered my grandmother to re-read those stories to me so much that in exasperation she decided it would be easier to teach me to read for myself. So I went from comic books to Dick And Jane stories and then back to comic books again.
I really treasure what comic books have given to me. Not only the gift of learning to read, but also a love for mythology. My introduction to the Norse and Greek pantheons was made via comic books. And they expanded my vocabulary. To this day I remember getting bullied because when I was seven I called another boy “incorrigible.” It wasn’t the insult that got me bullied, it was the fact that I was using polysyllables. I had picked up the word from a Green Arrow story.
And let’s be clear . . . when I was a teenager, growing up in the 1980’s, that was a golden age for comic books. My grandfather had expanded his bookstore into VHS tape rentals, magazines, and comics and I worked there during High School. We ended up starting a lucrative business buying and selling old comics, and because I was the only one in the family who knew anything about this stuff I got to be in charge of it. The 1980’s saw Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. I remember reading that stuff when it came out, and waiting breathlessly for the next issue. That was some heady, heady stuff. It paved the way for Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which easily clears the bar of high grade literature.
But what I remember being most impressed with was not the stories – not exactly – but with being confronted by the use of the medium to tell those stories. There was an issue of Swamp Thing written – of course – by Alan Moore that epitomized this for me. In a single 22-page issue, Moore told two parallel but contrasting stories, each of which were separated by a single page. That is, when you were holding the book in your hands, the page on the left told one story and the page on the right told a different story. But the two were connected, and you could literally see the construction being made . . . a construction that was greater than the sum of its parts.
And the meta-story ended exactly the way all conflicted stories should: with the narrator puzzled by what it all means. It was a beautiful, beautiful piece of fiction writing, and something that could not have been conveyed in any other medium.
* * *
But, of course, these tales are an ode to the best of what the medium can produce, not a description of what the medium is mostly about. What it mostly is about is brain candy, Right and Wrong in great, four-color format. Morality tales dressed up in tights; Truth, Justice and the American Way easily digestible and easily absorbed.
Not that there is much wrong with that. It’s nice to feast on pablum, every once in a while. And there is a reason we refer to things that are bad for us as “comfort food.” One can only have so much vegetables. Occasionally, we all need some cookie dough.
And so I keep that injunction in mind while I read my comics, skimming through what passes for entertainment and looking for that truly emotive moment that I know these things can still provide. I understand that most of what I am reading is not literature, is not morality, is nothing more than brain candy, a rush of sugar – like a pixie stick – to be downed before rushing back to the adult world.
But y’know what? I worry about conservatives. I worry that they haven’t figured out that this kind of brain candy, infantilized storytelling doesn’t really reflect the Real World.
Part of the problem I have with your standard comics story is that I don’t understand the motivations of the Bad Guy. Picture Doctor Doom or the Red Skull: I Will Rule the World!
Seriously? These guys want to “rule the world”? They’re supposed to be geniuses, and yet this is their goal? I think ruling the world would suck. Don’t get me wrong . . . I understand wanting to be free to do whatever you want to do. But that just means that you are rich. Ruling the World actually means a lot of work, and being responsible for, well, everything.
And that leads me to my next point: after you’ve got enough money to do whatever you want, what kind of person believes their lives will be better if they just have a little bit more? Seriously, how does that make any sense at all?
And yet, we are treated to stories like this, in which Mitt Romney – aspirant to the highest job in the nation – talks about moving to Florida because it doesn’t have a state income tax. Mitt Romney, already richer than any of us common folk can fathom, wants to live in a state because that means he’ll have just a little bit more.
I can’t be the only person who looks at people like this and sees a cartoon, comic-book villain, can I?