Seven years is a long time to go without comics. Especially for someone like me, who has lived and breathed comics for most of his life, both as a hobby (obsession?) and as a source of occasional income. Comics and I were a love at first sight, and nothing had ever gotten in our way before. No girlfriend had ever dared utter the ultimatum of “it’s me or the comics” because she knew that would be her invitation to make her way to the door. Love me, love my comics. Besides, as many will tell you, a Zack Davisson without comics just really isn’t a Zack Davisson at all.
So how did I find myself in such circumstances, separated for so many years from my life-long love? It certainly wasn’t the usual suspects. I never “grew out” of comics; I never felt embarrassed of my hobby or moved on to more adult pursuits.
The closest I had come to giving up comics before had been during the wretched periods of 90s X-trEmE X-ceSs when every character had a goatee and a leather coat, and flashy foil multiple covers and the “bad girl” craze (a cleavage-flashing Sue Storm? Really? Whose idea was that?) took the place of storytelling.; The quality of mainstream superhero comics became so unreadably dismal that had I stopped collecting even my beloved X-Men–my constant companion since childhood.
Even though I owned my own comic shop during those bad times and was making some money on the boom, I was hovering on the edge of giving up the actual reading of comics altogether. I felt sorry for the speculators who were buying these awful garbage books, carefully tucking them away with acid-free boards and polybags, dreaming of future Action Comics #1s that they could retire on.
My own comic reading began going backwards rather than forwards. I was picking up stuff from the Silver and Golden ages, capitalizing on the speculator market to turn “bad but expensive” modern comics into sweet, sweet candy like the CC Beck Captain Marvel Adventures. (Sorry about that, by the way, Mr. Speculator Dealer. I know you thought you were getting quite the deal when I traded you fifty copies of X-Men #282 for Captain Marvel Adventures #5, but…)
The only thing that saved modern comics for me was the independent books. Strangers in Paradise came to rescue me. Hellboy and Bone kept adventure alive and kept me hooked through that blighted decade until Alex Ross swept it all away with Kingdom Come and restored balance to the force. May we never see that decade’s like again.
No, the answer is much simpler. I moved. I moved to a faraway magical land, a place of fantasy and whimsy, of giant robots and raw fish. That’s right, I moved to Japan.
It should be said that this wasn’t the first time I had jumped ship and left the country. In fact, the reason I sold my comic shop in the first place was to go live in Scotland for a while and eat haggis and drink whiskey in the mist-covered glades. But even far away and across the “pond.” I still managed to track down a local comic shop and turn my hard-earned pounds into four-color goodness. I brought home a nice suitcase of comics when I came back to the US.
But in Japan, this was impossible.
Now, Japan is clearly not a Country-Without-Comics. In fact, the entire country reads comics in pretty much the same way people in the US read magazine or newspaper comic strips.
They are cheap, fun to read, and get tossed out with the next batch of paper recyclables which falls on either the second Thursday or the third Wednesday of the month, depending on which side of the train station you live on. No, Japan is bursting at the seams with comics. Japan is a fat kid wandering down the street, stuffed with comics rather than fat. Japan is a remarkably clean country, but if there was any litter to be found on the streets, than surely that litter would be comics. Japan loves comics.
You see, while American people love Japanese comics (Notice I don’t use the word “manga” as that is a column for another day), Japanese people couldn’t give a Pokémon’s pie-hole about American comics. When it comes to the free and fair exchange of sequential art, comics are a one-sided love affair between the States and the land of the rising sun. In fact, I highly doubt that your average Japanese person is even aware that such a thing as American comics exist. To them, Superman, Spiderman and the X-Men are movies, and that is all they have ever been.
And don’t get me wrong here; I LIKE Japanese comics. I can sing the theme song to Star Blazers in either Japanese or English, and my very first tattoo was of Princess Kahm from Manabe Johji’s Outlanders. I was right there when First Comics started publishing Love Wolf and Cub in 1987 and still have my copy of the first issue of Viz Media’s publication of Ranma ½ bought off the stands in 1993. I accumulated a sizable collection of Ge ge ge no Kitaro comics and memorabilia when I was in Japan, which remains one of my most prized possessions.
But big eyes/small mouths swinging giant swords can just never really compare to the bright capes and colorful tights that come with American superhero comics. Japanese comics tend to be relationship-orientated, and fall to extremes of either violence or comedy, with heavy doses of melodrama in-between. They seem more…disposable.
There are few Japanese comics approaching the scale, not to mention the history and continuity, of American comics. I love the Grand Opera; the dialog, the sense of self-importance and the unbelievable believability of a world where a giant bald man with blue robes and a massive head who lives on the moon can say “So speaks Galactus. So speaks the Cosmic Truth” (Fantastic Four #262) and give a boy goosebumps as if those were the most profound words ever put on paper.
But American comics are close to impossible to find in Japan. They are never translated into Japanese, not even the trade paperbacks, and the only way I could really keep up in Japan was by reading comics websites (like Comics Bulletin, of course!) and try to live vicariously through the articles and reader talk-backs. I tried to keep up with cool-sounding things like “Infinite Crisis” and “Civil War,” or “Trials of Shazam” and “52,” and all the other big shake-ups that were happening. The online world made it possible to read the headlines, and every now and then, I got a care package of a collected edition from home, but it just wasn’t the same. I drifted out of touch.
All journeys end, however, and after my long sojourn, when I finally did make it back stateside, heading to nearby comic store to discover all the wonders I had been missing out on was one of the first things on my list. Right after introducing my new wife to my mother…gotta have some priorities.
I have to tell you: it is a daunting task to re-enter the world of comics after such a long separation. The serialized nature of the storytelling, the very thing that makes comics unique, also makes it difficult to get inside of. Trying to get into American comics is a lot like sitting on the entrance ramp of a fast-moving freeway, unsure of how to time your speed and make a smooth transition, or of being the new guy at a party of close friends, with conversations going on all around you and no easy way to step inside of the circle.
I found myself bewildered at a local comic shop, recognizing nothi
ng on the shelves. Here I was, someone who used to memorize Who’s Who in the DC Universe and was familiar with the most obscure comic trivia, and I couldn’t even identify who was currently wearing the red and gold suit of my favorite character Captain Marvel. It sure as hell wasn’t Billy Batson. And what was Cyclops doing in bed with Emma Frost? And why, for some unexplainable reason, did she seem to be made out of diamonds? Is that Hal Jordan? Alive? And why is Wolverine on the cover of every single Marvel comic? In the Avengers? Really?
And so I gave up. I walked out of that comic shop empty-handed, ironic considering I thought I was going to be filling up shopping carts.
It didn’t seem worth the effort. There was too much back-story to fill in, the investment in time and money was too great, and it seemed impossible to start over again. I thought maybe my time with comics was over. Not completely over, as I still had all of my somewhat massive comic collection, but maybe it was time to stop adding to it and just step away from the table with what I had. I would tend my garden, but stop planting. Know when to walk away and all that.
But a collected edition or two couldn’t hurt, right? That was hardly getting “back in” to comics, just picking up some reading material.
Ah, the little lies we tell ourselves…