9 Feb 2018

Thought Balloon: MY FIRST YEAR READING COMICS

Jo S: I got started in comics wayyyyyy late on - you guys who’ve been collecting since you were kids? Wow, I have a lot of respect for your experience but I’m a total newbie to this. My first introduction to modern comics was a copy of Matt Kindt’s Past Aways, lying around at a friend’s house. It has become a ‘thing’ for me that I have deep issues with stories which use time travel to fix things and I picked up this copy intending to be snotty about the weakness of using time travel as a magic wand to resolve all plot problems. Instead of finding ammunition for an assassination of yet another tiresome ‘just when disaster seemed unavoidable our hero reverses time and stops his own conception’ cliché (chronoclasm as contraception - hmm, should market that), I found myself giggling at the little cutaways describing various bits of loony future-tech and guiltily indulging in blatant parody of sci-fi, which for me had always been a pretty formal business. This gave me my start, and was followed by a little dabbling with more Kindt and more sci-fi (Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard stands out - more please!). And then I met the Paradox Comics Group.

I won’t drone on with a full history of my year - I’m still new to writing (if you weren’t aware, I’m a mathematician, writing anything longer than ‘...and hence since this is true for n=1 and the truth for n=k implies truth for n=k+1, this must be true for all n greater than or equal to 1’ is new world for me) and my tendency to to ramble verbally isn’t tamed in the written word yet, so I’ve used my extensive research in the field of social media and opted for a list, because apparently that’s what gets clicks.

Here then, presented for your delectation, is my list (YOU WON’T BELIEVE NUMBER 6!!)...

NINE THINGS I BELIEVED ABOUT COMICS UNTIL 2017

Some I still hold to be true, many have been trashed comprehensively (and generally for the best).

1. The Beano is a comic and comics are like The Beano

Well, sort of. I read The Beano, Whizzer And Chips, occasionally The Dandy, as a kid. I loved John Edward Oliver’s stuff especially - I think his drawings appealed to my eye for tiny details: his ongoing campaign to abolish Tuesdays produced a little 'T' in a circle on a dinky wooden sign, and a tiny cube with a crank handle, dotted unexplained throughout his work. I was clueless about the format of comic books though - I realise that this information must have been around me for years and I just didn’t notice it.

2. Comics objectify women

I didn’t want to leave this one until late in the list and it was an issue which was important for me early on, for obvious reasons. So, yes, inarguably, some comics objectify women, and some more overtly than others. I think it’s fair to say that every visual medium has its exploitative, porn-y zone and comic books have plenty of Boundless-type materials (if you haven’t seen that shelf in a comic book store, Boundless is to comic books as Paul Raymond is to magazines generally). Personally, I find this less of a problem - it’s not marketed to anyone other than its specific demographic, comic book store owners keep it out of the way, like traditional top-shelf mags, and I guess if what floats yer boat is naked jungle chicks rolling around in scraps of leopard pelt, then knock yerself out, you’re not hurting anyone. At least you can say that no actual women (or leopards) were harmed in the making.

I can’t, though, find it in me to wrap my head around some of the more manga-type ‘erotic art’ (gosh, struggling for vocab here, ‘spank material’ sounds so judgemental). I haven’t researched in depth (really, really don’t feel the need), but I find myself deeply uncomfortable with what look like ‘saucy’ images: upskirts images of french maids, figures with removable underwear etc, not because they are female but because they often look very childlike - I cannot deal with this and and do not wish to have it explained to me, thanks.

These are extremes, though. What about the more day-to-day stuff? Comic books reflect life, to some extent. I suppose therefore it is inevitable that gender equality is not always visible. Male leading superheroes have girlfriends, occasionally wives, and these partners are often an encumbrance rather than a support - almost inevitably written as smart and hard-working and sassy, they still require more rescuing than ideal and the message to boys that girlfriends or family become a responsibility to bear and a risk to you completing your life’s task, rather than a partnership which allows you to become more than you are by yourself, is written into the story code. Female leading superheroes are generally single or gay, they often have an imposing father figure in their background, they are serious and overachieving; their male romantic partners, should they dare to become unchaste, either betray them, exceed them or are killed off. The message that to be successful, a woman must be impossibly hard-working, have an unforgiving daddy-figure driving them, have no sense of humour and be single is a challenging one for me.

I can’t lay the blame for this at the feet of comic books though - as I say, comic books reflect life, reflect culture, and they are changing along with, and sometimes maybe even a little ahead of, our world. Series which are aimed at girls, full of empowering, appealing images are springing up. I shamelessly love the DC SuperHero Girls, and Bombshells series has been a big surprise to me - born out of merchandising based on the nose-art of WW2 bombers, these stories take the themes of collaboration and communication from Wonder Woman stories and give us a whole community of hero girls who are strong together. I also love Marvel’s approach to female X-Men characters over the years: partnerships, marriages, children, repeated failure - none of these have proved a barrier to leadership for women in the team. There is positive change out there, and not just recently - comic books are leading the march rather than wallowing in the past.

3. Comics are for boys/kids/nerds/geeks/specialists

Yes, this is totally true. They are also for girls, faux-nerds, mothers in their 40s, horror fans, hipsters, pixies, Pokémon hunters, great-aunts, bronies, phonies, people who inexplicably like swede, people who have never seen The Godfather, dabblers and fanatics, couch-potatoes and gym bunnies, science nerds and flat-Earthers, droidophiles and technophobes, sceptics and believers… I could go on. Whatever you think you are, whatever your enthusiasms, there’s something for you. I guarantee it. Pop down to a comic book shop and ask them to recommend something. Do it today!

4. Comics are all about superheroes

Nope. No. Well, yes, a lot of comics are about superheroes and, as I suspected, a lot of comics about superheroes are about the same superheroes, regenerated and reimagined, sometimes regendered. No one who’s been into comic books for a while thinks this is odd any more but, as a recent entrant to the genre, I can say that the tangled history (and, confusingly sometimes also, future) of, say, Wolverine, can be pretty daunting for a new kid. “So, he died… but then he hadn’t actually? Oh, he had actually died but then in this universe he hasn’t, so in this one he could… Riiiiight.” Guys, you’ve been immensely patient with me on this and I thank you for that but it is still a weird thing if you’re not used to it. Trust me.

But… there is SO MUCH MORE. I hadn’t heard of horror comics before this year, I wasn’t aware that My Little Pony was a comic book thing. I didn’t know about Doctor Who or Star Wars or Firefly all being in comics. Or that you could get comic books about mathematicians or college girls or bear fighters or mice surviving the holocaust or wrestling or fine art or anorexia or building a robot from scrap. See my point above: there is something for everyone. If superheroes are what kick your particular dinghy off the jetty then, sure, there are plenty of those but don’t dodge this as a genre if that’s not your bag; there’s so much more to it than that.

(Comic books about mathematicians: yes, they really exist too - read Logicomix, MathsFans!)

An aside about punctuation/hyphenation/pluralisation (because, not unusually for a mathematician, I have a bee in my bonnet about these things): it’s Superman (one word), Spider-Man (hyphenated) and Iron Man (two words). Plurals - well, until this year, I had no idea that any of these guys (oh, and gals - there’s an Iron Man who’s a girl now - true story) required a plural, so there’s a major learning point for me right there. For more than one Batman, it’s ‘Batmans’ - I know, you get used to it although it sounds weird. That’s because they’re all Batman. I think I got away with saying ‘Iron Men’ because they’re a number of men (er, and one woman) who wear iron. Sort of. Look, I’m still new to this, work with me here.

5. Everyone else knows more about comics than me and always will - and you have to have experience to have a credible opinion

Respectively: Yes currently, yes probably and no, not true at all. Well, I hope not. If it’s true then everyone is being very kind and patient with me spouting off my uneducated thoughts at length. Your reaction to a comic book is your reaction and is therefore absolutely valid. I retain the right to assume you are a dickhead if you spout off about how comic books have gone to the dogs since they started letting women vote or that they’ve been ruined since they let anyone not called Jack, Frank or Stan write them, and endorse your right to form your own opinion about whether I should stick to knitting or cleaning the home my husband generously provides for me.

My experience this year, albeit very much from inside my self-built cosy social media echo chamber, is of an immensely welcoming and positive community. Initially, I thought I had to learn what was ‘right’ and ‘okay to like’ and then I’d be able to comment. Actually, the more I stick my neck out and say ‘I like this because…, I don’t like this because…’, the more I find I enjoy this medium - standing up for something I enjoy is affirming and quite a new experience for me (which you might consider astonishing since my life as a maths teacher involves daily evangelism for a subject which many have an entrenched negative view of - maybe I’d just got used to that).

It helps, of course, that I have an amazing team of supportive comic book fans around me, who share their experience willingly and, whilst they’re keen to show me the stuff they’re into, are very happy for me to find my own thang. One of the highlights of my year consists of me half-recognising the cover art on a comic, saying ‘Huh, that looks like Christian Ward’s stuff’ and then being proven correct following research by the book’s owner. Can’t deny, the challenge of remaining cool and collected, when inside I’m running about wagging my tail like a dieting labrador on the promise of a biscuit, strained my self-control somewhat. Although I did have some making up to do after referring to Green Arrow as ‘this little Robin Hood guy’ and not realising there might be a key reason why Batman and Wolverine don’t hang out more.

More on this lovely gang of real life comic book heroes later...

6. The Big Bang Theory is nonsense and exaggerates the whole comic book store thing

Gosh, I’d like to say this is true. There’s a lot I can find to grumble about in this show but the comic book store is almost bang on. Andy, our local version of Stuart the Comic Book Guy, asked me gently and politely one day while I was hanging around at Paradox, “Please don’t say 'Hello' to the customers as soon as they come in, you’re making them nervous”. Oops. Sorry about that.

The one big difference is that EVERYONE comes into Paradox. Andy welcomes one and all, and always has exactly the right amount of chat for anyone that comes through the door, from a distant nod to the more shy to a full on gossip for those that he knows more about. Customers who pop in once a month, once a quarter, once a year - he remembers them and what they like. I love this. If visiting a real shop isn’t part of your comic book experience so far then make it so.

7. There are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (or maybe ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’) comics to like

Noooooooo. Like what you like. NO ONE who matters a jot to you will judge you negatively for it. They might roll their eyes at you while you extol the virtues of Eleanor And The Egret for the fiftieth time, but that’s fine.

8. Comic books are cheap, disposable entertainment and online comics are just as good as hard copy

Can’t lie. There is nothing cheap about new comic books as entertainment. You can certainly get back issues cheaply - there’s likely a whole drawer of comics for pocket money prices at your local comic book store and there are websites which batch out electronic comics at crazy-low prices. Personally, I work hard at something I’m good at, so I allow myself a budget to be entertained in my down time. This year, that budget has taken a kicking from my comic book habit, that’s true, but I look at what I’ve got from that and, for me, it has been worth the investment.

I might need to build an extension to the house at some point to house my collection though because comics aren’t disposable any more. Unlike my copies of The Beano which, once well thumbed, were consigned to wrapping china in a house move, my modern comics are much more like a book collected in installments.

So why not go digital then? This is a trickier question. Plenty of folks have gone this way and it has been a new lease of life for the medium. Dynamic comics designed specifically for online readers are a thing (not a thing I’m into, but I have sampled them). If you don’t have a comic book store near you, or one you can get to a few times a year, then maybe online is the only option. I will confess, to the horror of many, I’m sure, that I don’t own many physical books: I tend to read them and then give them away. I’m not a pack rat, and don’t have any strong attachment to material goods.

I’ve been lucky enough to get to go to a couple of comic cons this year (not the dressing-up kind, more like a market for comics fans) and can heartily recommend the experience of watching a collector working the boxes. That flick-flick-flick-pause-flick-pause-tiny-change-of-expression that precedes a find, the reverent lifting out of the prize copy, the minute inspection for condition - it’s like watching a craftsman at work, but it’s not really me.

And yet… the joy of picking up that paper bag on a Wednesday, the first rifle through - I know what I ordered but I still revel in seeing them for real every time. I delight in foil or lenticular covers - I don’t seek them out especially but they’re a treat. I like completing a set and then looking back through them all, the first few reminding me of how much I enjoyed the surprises the first time I read them.

Comic books aren’t just a medium, they are an artform. Some people collect art, some enjoy it transiently. I started my hobby in December 2016 with electronic copy, to get a feel for what I liked. Now, I own the Alias and Lazarus series that I originally read digitally in hard copy, not because I have a particular need to fill my shelves, but because I want to say to the publishers who produce these books that I love them and want to see more. I own all of the aforementioned Eleanor And The Egret run already and when this appears in a collected edition, I will buy it and I will keep asking for a hardback version too because it is utterly exquisite. I want to put down my marker and say “Please make more of these”.

9. Reading comics is a solitary hobby.

Sure. If you want. Lose yourself in the universe hidden in a dozen pages. Commune with the artists and writers, block out the world and read for joy; form your own opinions and make comic books your safe space. That’s all good. I’ve never been much of a ‘joiner’, if I’m honest. The idea of a book club summons images of other mums at the school gate sharing exhausted-looking copies of Fifty Shades, or Richard and Judy (like Oprah for Brits) looking professionally sympathetic over the kind of novel you get discounted in a supermarket. So, imagine my surprise to find myself in a book club - of sorts.

Talking about the stuff you’ve read and hearing other fans talk about the books that got them impassioned this month is so much more than I thought it could be. I know I’m pretty lucky to have a group already in place here, and that they were good enough to welcome me in. I think the Paradox WaGs still think I’m missing a couple of sandwiches from the old mental picnic basket: “Why would you want to talk about comic books? In a pub? Isn’t a bit geeky?” to which my response is that the comic book group is actually only the second nerdiest club in a pub that I go to regularly, the monthly MathsJam being the first by at least a Möbius strip length.

(MathsJam? Yes it’s a real thing. It happens all over the world. Consenting adults get together in a pub to do maths together. For fun. I promise this is true.)

The comic book community on Twitter has been a wonder to me as well - it’s a new world to me to be able to hold a conversation with someone involved in creating a work of art which I have enjoyed and I would recommend to anyone to find creators there and tell them if you appreciate their work.

That was: Nine things I believed about comics before 2017

...and many more things I have learned.

Huge thanks to everyone who has helped and encouraged me this year; it has been amazing. I hope you’ll all let me keep doing this.

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