(originally published in Rhubarb Bomb Issue 2.2 – August 2011)
I’ve seriously crossed a major fucking line here. There’s no going back to normal, civilised society now. I’ve just walked into OK Comics in Leeds bought 52 comics. And not just any comics; All 52 Issue #1’s of the rebooted DC universe. And I’ve never bought one in my life before. You know Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons and the prestige with which he holds Issue #1 of Radioactive Man? We are within those realms. Will I become him? And how, exactly, did I get here? Well, to answer that I must take you back just over 3 years…
I never read comics as a kid… really. The odd Beano and Sonic The Comic. I never had an interest through my university years. Our universes did not cross. But something planted the seed. Perhaps it was the emergence of the superhero summer blockbusters through the noughties. But even that side of things didn’t click. I still held comics in a, not childish regard, but just a bit absurd. Certainly not ‘serious’ fiction. It all seemed a little throwaway.
But perhaps the movement of this realm of geekdom into the mainstream triggered something off. I began to get the impression, correctly, of a vast universe spreading back years and years into the past, of complex and damaged characters that stood in contrast to the do-gooder Superman archetypes one usually associates. But I was still uncomfortable reading a ‘superhero comic book’. So I found another way in. I thought ‘if I’m going to do this, I might as well start with the best’. So I avoided comics and avoided conventional superhero’s. I read the graphic novel ‘Watchmen’.
Created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the late 80’s and later made into a film, the book is widely referred to as the ‘Citizen Kane of Graphic Novels’. Which is to say it blew the world of comic books clean off its axis. It is a spiralling narrative set in an alternate 1980’s that sees the world on the brink of nuclear war. Instead of Superhero’s it features only ‘masked vigilantes’, with the exception of the bizarre Dr Manhattan. It’s impossible and meaningless to discuss the vast story here, but the way it is allowed to unfold matches the best fiction I have ever read. There are no caricatures, clichéd super villains, or bizarre backdrops. Just a dense and intriguing story that blew me away, just as it must have others 25 years ago and just happened to be told with pictures, as well as words.
From that point my eyes were wide open. I stuck to compact, standalone, graphic novels. One of my favourites was ‘Superman: Red Son’ which was my first foray into a standard superhero character. I love S:RS because it is set in an alternate universe that sees Superman’s ship crash in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville. Simple concept that is awesomely put together and also features a cool Russian Batman in a funny hat. I read the first collection of ‘The Walking Dead’ before it became a TV show, ‘Wanted’ by Mark Miller (again, now a film, though only barely related) and epic Grant Morrison DC tour de force ‘Final Crisis’ which made little sense as I didn’t know many of the characters, but totally brought home to scope of the universe in action.
Sad, but I often thought; what will people think if they see me reading this? As such, my reading often took place in a dark room of the house and was rarely discussed. I was circling the edges of this subculture because I knew no-one who was interested in this stuff, yet I clearly did not know enough about it to hang with the rest of the geeks.
Regardless, I lightly pursued the interest. I read some obscure but enjoyable things; Alice In Sunderland is a beautiful, odd tale that takes in a lot of folklore of the city and winds it round an Alice like, 4th wall breaking narrative that almost made me not hate Sunderland. Electric Ant was a Philip K Dick short story expanded into a 5 part story that explored reality and existentialism. The Prisoner: Shattered Visage was a sequel to the 1960’s TV series (which I love too) which, although not matching to the TV show, was an engaging and interesting read.
After Watchmen, I also explored the work of Alan Moore in much more detail. He’s regarded as the Godfather of this that and the other. In reality, he’s just a great writer bursting with ideas. Mature, sophisticated ideas that have often been botched by Hollywood. I’ve read V for Vendetta and The Killing Joke and would love to read more. Alongside Grant Morrison, he is, as yet, the only name I recognise and associate with awesome stuff. Just the simple idea that comics are WRITTEN seemed alien at first. The relationship between writer and artist is fascinating and another intriguing thing about the whole world.
A final step was made when I visited Japan a year ago. We visited the Manga museum in Kyoto which was basically a massive library of graphic novels and art from around the world. Like pretty much everything over there, the Anime is like nothing else in the world. I have since read ‘Ghost In The Shell’ a classic future noir Japanese work which was typically massive and confusing and genius. It’s a lot more Sci-fi based, set in a future Tokyo (which is already pretty futuristic to Western eyes) and again, floored me with its concepts.
Japan also taught me a lot about society. I consider it a very accepting society in terms of respect for the way people live their lives. In direct relation to this article, I saw grown men openly reading comics on the metro (though I also saw them reading violent hardcore pornography…) It’s funny that I really don’t care what people think of the music I listen to or the clothes I wear – in fact I revel in any sense of outsiderdom. Yet reading a picture book really bothered me. As with so much, Japan had it right and I decided I didn’t care anymore.
Since then I have come to accept the term ‘comics’. Yet I am also aware that almost everyone I know hasn’t had this 3 year journey to begin to understand a much under appreciated genre and may regard me with suspicion. You, dear reader, will either be into this stuff already and will thus scorn me for my cowardice as well as for stating the obvious. Or will think I’ve lost it and become one of those ‘sad people who read about flying men with x-ray eyes and live in a fantasy world’. Well I’d rather live there than the boring one you inhabit, ta.
Of course, some comic material feeds to detractors, but Christ, have you seen the Bestsellers section of Waterstones recently? And the most watched television shows? And the highest grossing films? There’s crap, sure, but the world of Graphic Novels is rich with story and invention. Plus, like 12” vinyl and old books, they are a BEAUTIFUL THING TO HAVE. I have a friend very sceptical of all this kind of thing, but he owns ‘Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness’ and enjoyed it. And here lies the most important point of all Comics / Graphic Novels / whatever; they are a MEDIUM, not a GENRE. That is so important. It means there is something for everyone.
Which doesn’t quite answer why I’ve just blown over £100 on 52 comics… Well, I’m exaggerating. It’s 13 issues for 4 weeks running. But it’s still a big step. I guess I’m embracing the event. Comics aint worth much anymore so it’s not for some great financial gain. But I feel some kinship between the fanzine and the comic, despite the mass industry that is DC. For the first time I can follow a comic series from Issue #1. How often does that chance arrive? I just want to support the culture and immerse myself deeper. Aside from all this, there is a whole world of Independent designers and storytellers using this medium and that’s something I want to know more about. I urge you to give it a try. Even Waterstones stock this stuff now. Or next time you are wondering down the Thorntons Arcade in Leeds, pop into OK Comics and take a look around. There’s a whole world in there and it’s a damn site more interesting than ours.