Kal-El and me

… or "The rise and fall of comic books in my life."

I became a comic-book fan when I was about seven years old. My weekly allowance was a quarter; for that amount of money I could buy two (yes, two!) comics and still have a penny change.

Although I dipped into other titles, my favorite was Superman. Part of it was the usual childhood wish-fulfillment: imagine having the powers to do everything that you want. There was another part too: Though Superman could do anything he wanted, he didn’t. He tried to do the right thing, even though it was difficult.  A kid learns morality from all kinds of places, and I learned mine from Superman.

From the perspective of a few decades down the line, I know how silly that sounds. I know the stories were being created by a bunch of underpaid writers and artists working out of an old brick building in New York City.  They were writing to deadline, writing to make a buck, and probably didn’t consider themselves responsible for the moral upbringing of a kid in Los Angeles.

Funny how things work out. Because to this day, I find that many of my moral and ethical considerations are held up to the light of long-ago adventures of Superman: the goal is to do the right thing, even though it’s hard, even though it may be easy to go the other way or throw a tank at the villains of life.  Philosophers have spent ages coming up with rationales for why humans should behave in a moral fashion, and I understand some of the arguments. But when push comes to shove, sometimes I do things because that’s what Superman would do.

As the years went by (and as my allowance increased), I expanded my reading to other titles, mostly because their characters guest-starred in an occasional issue of Superman.  I was luke-warm to Batman, except when he teamed up with Superman, so I preferred World’s Finest to any Batman-only titles. I also was fond of The Legion of Super-Heroes, not only because of the camaraderie of the characters and the way they co-operated with their various powers, but because those female characters looked kinda hot in the tight outfits of the 30th century. Another favorite of mine was Metal Men, which is practically forgotten today: robots whose powers mimiced the properties of various chemical elements.

I went through the typical hassles of kids who grew up with comics. My step-mother forced me to throw out about half my comics collection, under the usual erroneous parenting theory that her disapproval would be sufficient to make me give them up.  My brother stole a good chunk of my collection to sell it, under the usual erroneous sibling theory that I wouldn’t notice.

I didn’t start reading Marvel Comics until I was 16 and starting college; what I had heard of the characters just didn’t interest me. But I idly picked up a copy of Iron Man at a college newstand, and that led me to other titles. I didn’t particularly care for Spiderman, who always seemed too wrapped up in his personal problems, but I enjoyed the super-hero teams: The Avengers, The Defenders, X-Men.

My favorite was Silver Surfer. As you might guess from what I wrote above, it was because the Surfer’s story was founded on a difficult choice he had to make, and chose the hard road because it was the right thing to do.  

I continued to read comics until my early 30’s, but I gradually stopped. I attribute this to three things:

– I became aware of the soap-opera quality of some of the plots, the X-Men in particular. At first, the whole notion of the world being prejudiced against the poor super-hero mutants seemed tragic to me.  But over the course of years, there was a quality of sameness about it: no one learned anything nor made any progress. The reason why was because then the story would be over; that is, these characters’ problems dragged on for what amounted for marketing reasons.

– One month, I saw two Marvel comics titles with essentially the same cover; I think it was Hulk and The Avengers. They both depicted a huge male figure towering over a prone female figure. On both covers the figures were basically in identical poses, only the costumes were different. Indeed, the stories inside the comics were different too. But it stripped too many support cables off of my willing suspension of disbelief. It was pretty clear that the artists were following the same standardized guide for how to create a marketable comic-book cover.

The Watchmen, which I mentioned in a previous post. Among the many brilliant aspects of that book is the way it took the comic-book experiences that I (and many others) had had, and took them in new directions. At the end of The Watchmen, I thought, "I will never, ever, read any comic book or graphic novel that is better than this." For me, the medium had peaked.

I didn’t cut myself off cold-turkey. I continued to read comic books with declining interest, dropping each title as it cycled back to themes or ideas that I’d seen before or that I now found tedious. My last "regular" comic was The Silver Surfer #100. I semi-arbitrarily picked that point to say, "Enough."

I sold my comic-book collection to someone I knew at work. They paid a dime an issue for all 2000+ books I had. In some cases it was a rip-off; I know I had comics that were worth many times their face value. I also had a huge number that were worthless.  In the end, it averaged out.

I’ve continued to pick up the occasional collection of comic book in graphic-novel form: Foglio’s Myth Adventures and Buck Godot, the Pini’s Elfquest, the "Death of Superman" cycle, Top Ten. They were fun, and occasionally brought back feelings of nostalgia, but nothing to match The Watchmen, or the feeling that the seven-year-old had when Superman was teaching him right from wrong.

(In particular, I found Sandman to be disappointing. My main reaction when reading it was "been there, done that… and not in so ugly a way." My apologies to the Sandman fans out there, and I know my opinion is in the minority, but that was my reaction.)

Do I regret the time, energy, and money I spent on comic books? Not at all! They provided me with entertainment and inspiration for many years.

Do I feel that comic book are only for kids? Not at all! I don’t think I "grew out" of comic books. I think there are some inherit limitations in the notion of the endlessly-continuing story, particularly in a deadline-based graphic medium; those limits began to bother me. Loud noises bother me too; it’s the main reason I don’t enjoy rock-and-roll. That doesn’t mean that young and old alike can’t enjoy head-banging heavy-metal music… or comic books. It’s just me.

Even though I don’t read them anymore, I am aware that the stories may be coming to an end. The internet and video games are pulling the interest away from comic books. I hope they find a way to survive.

If only so that kids will have some place to learn morality.

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