So, now I’m back from my long absence, there’s been a thing bothering me. Why are we here, exactly? I mean, not sitting reading this column* but why are we here, as proper grown-ups**, reading comic books? Why is it that we define ourselves by our enjoyment of this particular entertainment medium?
Because let’s be honest. To most people, comics are pretty irrelevant. Most kids don’t read them, and the one who do have mostly stopped reading them by the time they are old enough to be interested in booze and sex***. And yet here we are. When people ask us what our interests are, we always include “comics” on the list.
This automatically makes comics a bit special.
You might, I suppose list individual TV shows as one of your interests – “Oh yeah, I’m a big fan of The X Files” or whatever. But simply saying “yes, I love TV” marks you out as a total saddo. And while it is possible to say “Oh yes, I love books”, that isn’t really what people who say that actually mean. What they tend to mean is “I love novels”. In fact now I come to think about it, they usually mean “I love a particular genre of novel”.
About the only other entertainment medium which has a significant number of people claiming to love it so unconditionally is cinema. The difference there is the simple fact that an adult can claim to “love film” and still be regarded as a thoughtful intellectual type****. There is no such kudos for those of us claiming to love comics.***** Quite the opposite in fact. So, really, what’s the attraction?
Normally, when people ask me this question I mutter something about loving stories, but that isn’t really adequate. I do love stories, but that doesn’t explain my comics obsession. I would never have read Spider-Man as a novel. I can’t imagine that any of the Superhero stories I’ve read in comics would have worked as novels.****** Indeed, while some graphic novels like Blankets might have worked as regular novels, most, it seems to me would not. There is, therefore, rather more to it that just that.
Besides, the loyalty and, well, obsession that many of us feel towards the medium goes much deeper than mere affection for the stories it conveys. I’ve mentioned before that in my student days I would regularly skip meals in order to save money to buy comics. When my budget was finite I knew very well what my priorities were. When you think about it, that is nothing short of insanity. Cutting back on the beer and partying would be one thing, but actual food?! What the hell was I thinking?
But actually, while the presence of a very sensible woman in my life has civilised me somewhat since then, now I come to think about it, my priorities haven’t shifted all that much. In these straitened post credit crunch times I was in my LCS******* looking at reducing the list of titles on my standing order. Between a falling income and the rapidly rising prices of your average title******** I really do have to trim away some of the fat. To be honest, even if money wasn’t increasingly tight I should cut that list down anyway – I still have a stack of unread comics that comes up to my hip which is only getting taller. If I’m not even reading them, what the hell am I doing buying them in the first place?
And yet somehow it was a hard conversation to have. I walked in fully intending to knock maybe a dozen titles off. Couldn’t do it. In the end I dropped one. One. I know, it’s pathetic, isn’t it?
So what is this hold our comics have? What do they do for us that we simply don’t get anywhere else?
I think the first reason is the diversity. A quick look around my LCS this week revealed that, yes, there is an awful lot of Action and SciFi to be had – much of it in the form of Superheroes. No shocks there. But then there’s also a lot of horror, some romance, some philosophy, some crime, even some out and out unabashed erotica*********. I grant you that this kind of diversity can be found in most media, but not, and this is crucial I think, in the same place.
On the way home from my LCS I took a look at my local cinema. They could offer me Fantasy action in the shape of Harry Potter, cute comedy action in the shape of something called “G-Force”**********, a Teen comedy about bands and yet more action in G.I. Joe. I mean I know they make philosophical movies, but you just try finding a multiplex that’ll show you one. One of the upsides of the extraordinary level of cultural ghettoisation that comics have been subjected to is that you really do have to get anything in the medium from your LCS.
Which of course, brings me to one of the other things that comics give us that no other medium really does. The wonderful communities that still centre on the good old comics shop. A good comics shop*********** is a truly wonderful thing. Walking into my LCS here in Harrogate is like slipping into a comfortable************ old jacket. Whoever is behind the counter I can be assured of a diverting conversation, and if you stick around long enough all human life is there. I’ve met other teachers, US Service personnel, clerks, accountants, skater dudes, spooky kids who are convinced they’re “Goths”************* and all manner of other people who I would not normally mix with – who I would not normally get the opportunity to mix with, certainly not on equal terms.
I’ve said it before, but in spite of the popular misconception amongst the mundane population, comics readers are an astonishingly social bunch. Since the advent of the electric interweb back in the mid nineties these communities have also spread online, but not at the expense of their real world equivalents.
And do you know what? I think that really is the clincher.
A lot of our loyalty to comics is rooted in the sense of community we have as readers. If I stopped buying comics I’d miss that regular trip down to the store to pick them up a lot more than I’d miss most of the stories I buy while I’m there. I’d miss writing this, and the feedback I get from you lot. Although the boards have been quiet from a while now – don’t forget to drop in to Fool’s Errand if you happen to be passing. I’d miss the cons, and the chance to shoot the breeze with the people who create the comics I enjoy**************. All of that, and great stories too. Seriously. What’s not to love?
*Because, let’s face it, there really is no explanation for that…
**Chronologically, at any rate.
***So, about twelve, then…
****Which is remarkable, given the quality of most films.
*****Unless you’re talking to other people who love comics of course.
******Back in the early nineties I recall a short series of Batman novels. I bought one – I think it was called “The Batman Murders”, and it was OK, but I spent the whole time thinking “This would’ve been better as a comic”.
*******Still the ever lovely Destination Venus in Harrogate.
********Which, now I think of it, we all ought to be a good deal crosser about than we are. I must have a bit of a rant about that at some point.
*********Well, straightforward porn, in many cases. I know I’ve gone on about this before, and I probably will again, but I really don’t get this thing that some people have for unrealistically drawn young women with hardly any clothes on. I used to think that it was mostly bought by adolescent boys who couldn’t convince retailers to sell them Penthouse, but no, fully adult people of both genders buy this stuff by the armful. Seems strange to me, but there you go…
**********Rather disappointingly this turned out to be something to do with fluffy rodents and nothing at all to do with the seventies cartoon show Battle of the Planets.
***********And simple economics now dictates that most of them are good, because by now most of the rubbish ones have gone under.
************But still stylish…
*************Which as a rule they aren’t. Wearing black and reading Sandman does not, in itself qualify you.
**************Because I’ve said this before, but no matter how much you like movies, you’re never going to have a beer with Quentin Tarantino. By contrast I and about a hundred other people once shared a crate of champagne with Garth Ennis and Jill Thompson. I think Grant Morrison might have been there too.