Oct 16, 2008

Learning to Read Comics, part 1

I figured that this might be a useful thing to write about. There have to be hundreds, if not thousands, of you out there who love comics passionately. You think they are the perfect art form; It's not a bad thing, I'm right there with you. The combination of words and pictures, the giant tapestry of history, that follows not only the fictional characters but the real-life ones, too. Think of Jack Kirby's story. Or Siegel and Schuster's story. We love to hear tales of our comic book heroes. Grant Morrison on Disinfo.com. Alan Moore on The Simpsons. We have our own entertainment culture within a culture that we thrive on. The little snippets of gossip from the conventions, announcements of exclusive contracts for this writer, or that artist. Again, I'm not saying it's bad. But have you ever tried explaining it to anyone who's not like you?

I have.

I am 34 years old. With a brief break in my late teen years, I've read comics for about 25 years. I know this because the first comic I bought that I kept, that I collected, was the first issue of Marvel's The Transformers. I still have it. I love comics unabashedly. I have a wife, a 9 year old son, and a 58 year-old father. Let me just state for the record that I also have a Mum, 2 brothers, a gaggle of in-laws, friends and the like. But I picked those specific three out because they are the ones I've tried to convince of the brilliance of comics. This is what I have learned. I set it down because of our shared joy in this hobby, because I worry that it'll die out, and I think that would be a shame. Time to make some converts, eh comrades?

Part 1. The Dad

I'll start with the member of my family who has suffered my comic book hobby longer than anyone else on planet Earth. My Dad: He's a great guy. We hang out, play music at the folk club
together, even went on a bit of a holiday together with the families last year. He's a brilliant Grandad, and, if my Mum sticking around is any indicator, a great husband. But right from the start, from the very start, he wasn't okay with the hording that went on at the beginning of my collection. It's not even that he had a problem with comics in general. It was just the collecting of them. To him, they were like magazines. They came out every week and you read them, maybe kept them in a stack next to your bed for a bit, and then you chucked them. I'm really not sure if he got comics as a kid. I don't recall him ever saying anything about it. There's a part of me that thinks maybe he didn't, and that's why the huge amount I've got is a problem for him. But perhaps I read too much into that. I don't bring him downstairs into my basement any more. I think the sheer volume of comics down there might just kill him.


So, over the years that dislike for the collecting kind of spread out to the medium in general. Comics were for kids. They weren't to be put in plastic bags with little boards behind; they weren't to be kept in boxes in alphabetical order; they weren't to be entered into a database with separate folders for each of your favourite writers. Nope.

My Dad is a work in progress for me. He has to be reintroduced to comics very slowly and in a way that makes him think it's his doing. To date, since the year 2002, when I decided, behind the counter of my short-lived comic store, that there was a comic out there for every single human being, and I could find it, I have given him 3 graphic novels to read. That's patience right there. If anyone ever accuses me of not having any (as we will see in part : The Wife), that's my proof. I have begun re-introducing my Dad to comics at the rate of one every two years. It takes research. That's all.

Back in 2002, that whole Jane Austen revival thing was not nearly as cheesy as it is now. It was okay to like all that period drama. I love the old BBC Pride and Prejudice. It's great. I only admit that here because I know you'll keep my secret. But my Mum loved it. Still does. Looooovvvveeeeddd it. And my Dad, being the excellent dude that he is, took an interest too. He's okay with the dancing and the teas and the scandals and stuff, but if you want the real stories, the ones that the period dramas are the safe, friendly, sit-com versions of, you read the gritty stuff. For my Dad, it was Charles Dickens. But,hey, why even read fiction when one of the greatest stories ever, one of the creepiest and most conspiracy-laden, happened right there in Victorian London: Jack the Ripper. So this is where I found my Dad's comic nerve, all those years ago.

If you're a reader in the know, you'll have figured out that it was Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell that was my weapon of choice. It was followed (or maybe preceded, now that I think about it), by Rick Geary's A Treasury of Victorian Murder: Jack the Ripper volume, which is really good. If you're less familiar with the Geary book, I'll elucidate. It's a graphic novel setting down the known facts of the Ripper case. He does delve slightly into the speculation and conspiracy that may or may not have been present, but in general relies on witness reports, police documents, and the like. Really well done, and quite valuable when you're about to send someone upon the journey that is From Hell.

The approach had to be sly. I'd recently given him a book that was a collection of all the official documents of the case. I got one for myself. Yep, there are people out there who buy that kind of stuff all the time. We live amongst you. Anyway, he enjoyed it. There were a couple of others of the same ilk. I had used books at my store and I came upon a collection of prison records of a Victorian jail, published in paperback format. That creeped me out a bit. But when my Dad really thought it was cool, I decided to take the plunge. I wish I could remember how I brought the topic up. For about 20 years up to that point, any discussion of comics with my Dad was met with some amount of derision. It may have been the fact that the film version of From Hell had recently come out, and he'd enjoyed that, so I scoffed at him and told him that the book was a whole other creature that would blow his mind. Whatever those magic words were, they must have worked. I must have believed in them just enough for them to work because my Dad agreed to read the book. He would pick up and actually read this giant graphic novel.

Looking back, that's quite something. Here's a guy who, to my knowledge, hasn't read a comic for the vast majority of my lifetime, and I give him From Hell to start off with. Imagine someone had done that to you. However, the fact of the matter is it worked. He read the entire book.

So there's the first lesson. If you want someone to give comics a shot, you're going to have to know them pretty well. You can't just do it for someone you hang out with occasionally. You've got to know the nuances of someone's personality, so you can know when something will be too violent, or when there's too much of a suspension of disbelief required. I knew that my Dad would get that book. Regardless of how complex a work it's considered within the medium, someone outside the medium will see it in a completely different way. It was within an area of his interest and expertise, so he accepted it as a legitimate piece of work.

And that's the way it's progressed, slowly but surely. There are indeed comics out there that I know, utterly know, that my Dad will like. There's not a lot of them, to be sure, but they exist. I mentioned that he and I play folk music together (please, don't tell my 16 year-old self. I don't think he could take it!), so there was my next in. Enter Charles Vess' The Book of Ballads. Not only do you have illustrated retellings of these traditional songs, but commentary, discographies. I actually can't believe, given the interests of my Father and I, that we didn't think of it first. Ah, well. Again, it was a success, he really enjoyed it. This past christmas I gave him the collection of Scott Chantler's Northwest Passage, a tale set on the Canadian frontier, a time period referenced often in Canadian folk music. So it's out there. That person you know, there is definitely something out there for them. But you're going to have to search hard. I suppose, though, that someone you know that well, you don't generally mind putting in a little hard work for them.

Coming soon, part 2: The Wife




(This article appears with many thanks to Peter.)

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