I am in my mid-forties and I read comics. I realize in this day and age that is not such a bold statement. In fact in certain circles it would be greeted with a resounding “so?” But for me it feels like a confession. It feels like I should qualify it with the term “guilty pleasure.” But there is no guilt, just pleasure.
Still, as I write this I am sitting in my favorite bar, a place I go often. I read and write here. I am known; I am comfortable. In my bag are two issues of the book I am currently reading. I want to pull them out and savor the story and the panels, but I won’t. I’ll wait till I get home and read it in private. Like some hidden treasure, like some bizarre kind of pornography. I like to tell myself I am above public opinion, that I don’t care what people say about me. Sadly, that is not the case.
When I was growing up it was explicitly clear that comic books were for kids and grown-ups read different, mature stuff. It was perfectly fine for children to read that sort of drivel but when you reached a certain age you were expected to stop. There were no hard and fast rules to this; you just knew when it was supposed to happen. Usually you knew by a hard punch in the arm or a crack in the back of the head or the book being slapped to the ground by the biggest kid in the school. You knew because you were called a baby and that’s what babies read. And you were called wimp and nerd and geek and gay. And when you informed an adult about what had happened you were told, “Well, you are a little old for that sort of thing.” And so you gave up on what you wanted to do and got pressured into going along with what you were told was right.
In time you even started to believe it.
Time passed. Years went by. I went to art school; I lived with artists and attitudes changed.
Now keep in mind that at this point I had convinced myself that I was “literary” that I was a “real artist”. I didn’t read childish dreck. I only read avant-garde, stream of consciousness, inventive prose. And art needed to be important and innovative and make you think and be real. I was so fucking authentic it hurt sometimes.
Then there were these roommates, artists, people I respected; people who were, frankly, better than me. They questioned me and my learned determination. You mean you’ve never read Sandman? You’ve never seen Dark Knight? Don’t tell me you never heard of Watchmen? I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. There was so much to catch up on, and I read everything that I should have.
Eventually I just read what I wanted to, what made me happy. Tucked away. I read collections hard back book form from the library. That way I could tell people it was a graphic novel, not a kid’s book… a novel, grown up and adult, just graphic, with art not illustrations. I could justify myself in every direction.
Nowadays things are different. Summer blockbusters are filled with heroes in tights and dark knights and supermen and avengers. Comic Cons are no longer small back room affairs held in strip malls but are huge events held in convention centers and major cities. Geek culture has hit the mainstream and is a million dollar industry.
So why then am still reluctant to let my comic book flag fly? Even in today’s geek-friendly world look at the common depictions of comic book readers:
Example: The Simpsons. “Comic Book Guy” Overweight, socially inept, pimply, obsessed with minute details of obscure trivia and laughed at.
Example: Big Bang Theory. Every character is a variation on the geek/nerd trope. Yes they are the heroes and yes they are smarter than everyone, but everything they do (especially reading comics) is seen as silly and hilarious.
Example: Castle. Nathan Fillion’s character is save and debonair and smart and talented. And he likes scifi and comics! Isn’t that quirky and oddball? Let’s use that as a comedic effect. Because, you know, comics!
For all the ways things have changed they are still the same.
And so here I sit wondering how old is too old for comics. The answer of course is never. That was never in doubt. Comic books are timeless and our enjoyment of them is without end. The real question is how we, individually and collectively, perceive them.
To me they are brilliant works of art combined with innovative storytelling. Little mini-movies told in individual frames. Glorious little things that combine into massive complex narratives.
I know this. I understand this. And yet I will not pull out my books in public because there are still remnants of that scrawny, big-glasses kid in corduroy pants with the squeaky voice. The kid who was scared into believing what he liked was wrong, the one who actually believed that crap about …
You know what? Screw it. Time to put the pen down. There is a comic book in my bag and I want to read it. Right here, right now.
Got a problem with that?