Devourer of Words 001: Why I Love Comics
I mean, I do love comics, quite dearly. But love is such a big word, despite its relative size, that I sorta feel like some context is required. Because me and comics go back a ways—I am a very old man, prone to shooing kids off of my lawn and waxing nostalgic about the world before email and Google circles and GPS (“We used maps, damnit!”)—I think it’s more appropriate to start with how I came to love comics.
1977. I saw Star Wars. This is notable because, like many of my old-person contemporaries, it blew the back of my head off. It was the first thing that my father knew that I liked, because he was sitting next to me and had to clean up my 6-year-old head-mess.
1980. My father took me to see Flash Gordon because, again, he knew I liked science fiction and was not overly fond of doing the parental due diligence that should come with taking your 9-year-old kid to the movies. Hence me seeing a movie filled with rape, incest, incestuous rape, and Queen. (This, coincidentally, is when I first realized that movies were created by people and didn’t just exist in the world. When Flash is sticking his hand into the wooden stump in Arboria, tempting the stingy-thing at its heart to bite, I covered my eyes with fear. My father leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry, they never kill the hero.” They. There’s a they?)
1983. My family moved from the Bronx to suburban Long Island, to a town that had its very own comic book store. Before this, my first exposure to comics came during the mid-’70s, when DC used to ship polybagged bundles to supermarkets. I just wasn’t ready for Mike Grell’s Warlord books at the time, so I focused my kid-love on kung-fu movies and KISS—as every black kid from the Bronx did in the late ’70s.
One day, my father came home from work, having stopped at The Incredible Pulp on the way, and gave me a stack of comics. Right on top was an issue of The Savage Sword of Conan—the “Marvel Magazine” that managed to elude the Comics Code. And inside that first issue was all the sex and violence and nudity and gore that a 12-year-old boy needs to warm his mind in all the right ways. (Again, with the dad not paying attention to content.)
And there was something about the fact that those pages—mostly drawn by John Buscema, Ernie Chan, and Barry Windsor-Smith, in my dim recollection—were black-and-white: it let me be an active participant in the building of that pulp world. As a kid whose only real artistic skill was an expertise in painting by numbers—and who was cresting puberty with a vengeance—Savage Sword of Conan spoke to me.
That led me to the Secret Wars miniseries, which introduced me to the fabric of the Marvel Universe in one 12-issue barrage. And there was no way back.
So, to the question at hand: Why do I love comics?
Because it makes me nostalgic for a time when nothing was impossible, when I was a boy who inhaled science fiction and pulp and didn’t yet know what I wanted to do with my life—but believed that pleasant fiction that I could do anything. The worlds within those floppy covers weren’t burdened with things like rules . . . unless they wanted to be.
And when I got older, and figured out the general direction I wanted to follow—telling stories about made-up people that may or may not feature giant monsters and laser beams—comics were integral to my development as a writer. They reminded me what I didn’t know.
Despite having read comics for most of my life, sitting down to write them was a humbling experience. Because comics are hard. How many panels on a page? How many balloons in a panel? How many words in a balloon? How do you pace a scene?
Comics are a bastard medium (which swipes elements from movies, TV, theater, and fine art) and are a bitch to learn how to make, primarily because no two comics writers write the same way. If I handed you screenplays to any five movies ever made, odds are they will look exactly the same. There is an agreed-upon standard for the way screenplays are supposed to look, so when you try and reverse engineer a movie you love, at least you know what the blueprints are supposed to look like.
But a Neil Gaiman script looks different from an Alan Moore script, which is different still from a Brian Bendis script . . . which makes taking apart a comic and seeing what makes it tick a difficult prospect.
I’ve been writing comics, professionally, for almost a decade, and I’m still learning how it works. I imagine that you never really stop learning, because comics can do so much. Action, clearly. Adventure, too. Mystery, horror, romance, comedy, memoir
. . . comics can do more than, sadly, is usually asked of it.
And the comics creator can have, if he or she chooses to, an unparalleled relationship with the reader. Our users aren’t passive, the way movie watchers and music listeners are, but we can direct them more than authors can prompt readers of prose. We can build their world, show them the faces and the places, but they fill in the blanks.
I love the comic medium for what it can do, even if it rarely does. And that leaves the door open so all of us can be surprised.
Why do I love comics? Because there’s always another one.
Marc Bernardin's Devourer of Words Toucan column will appear the third Tuesday of each month.