No cosmic rays, no secret government experiment, no ancient amulet, no genetic anomaly (that I know of) is to blame. Simple exposure is what transformed me, when a stranger aboard a flight to Amsterdam shared some comic books. One look through the pages of those four-color marvels and I was no longer a mild-mannered Kansas kid but
At every page of my seatmate's Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, Excalibur, et cetera, I pointed and asked characters' powers and origins. The urge of the fan to talk comics dwells deep. It knows no age. For anyone else, a hyperinquisitive nine-year-old could be a drain, but the tourist beside me was patiently indulgent. By the time we deplaned I felt like an expert in superheroics. Silly me. That stack of comic books barely skirted the labyrinthine Marvel universe, never mind those of other publishers. Still, this peek into a fictional reality was huge and couldn't be unseen.
What kid hasn't read a comic book? At least in this respect I was typical. Asterix and Obelix was a favorite, as was The Adventures of Tintin. A few kiddie comics, like Uncle Scrooge and Casper the Friendly Ghost, also entered my possession here and there, thanks to neighborhood yard sales. One time, too, I found a lurid Tales from the Crypt knockoff so creepy that I buried it in a box of books in my closet and, when I uncovered it again, months later, just glimpsing the cover startled me. But the comics on that transatlantic flight, my first encounter with superheroes, appealed to that primal myth-making urge. In our secular age, comic-book characters' costumed adventures stand in well for bardic tales of derring-do. The distance between Beowulf and Wolverine isn't so great as scholars might prefer to think.
The form that comics take, coupling words with pictures, is also sometimes considered remedial, the stuff of ABCs and Dick and Jane, but the history of humanity since it discovered written language is replete with "mature" examples of images paired with language: the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, twentieth-century pop art…. Comics are highly malleable, too, allowing any style or story, as simplistic or sophisticated as you could ever want. They're limitless. An artist can contain a whole narrative in a single panel, or stretch one moment across the panels of an entire page. And it's not just time that comics have the power to subvert. A conventional book is read a certain way, left to right, top to bottom. With comics, sequence is fluid. A page may start in the lower left and proceed clockwise, with panels' shape and content prompting you in the appropriate direction, while the next page may go all Snakes and Ladders, or radiate simultaneous panels from a central hub, or offer a disorienting hodgepodge — all in the service of the story. The order, the shape, the proximity of panels — none are arbitrary; each has meaning. You learn how to read a comic book whenever you open one for the first time, inferring and adapting as you go, propelled by the visceral, almost physical momentum of the story being told.
Naturally, I drew my own comics, tinkering with this protean storytelling method. Entire afternoons winked by, on the floor of my room, pens and markers arrayed around me, a large white page filling with elaborate color. You could illustrate it as a splash page. In childhood's omnivorous creativity, I was just as apt to steal ideas from books, TV, and movies as to invent my own. One strip that I did was Dr. Droid, a sci-fi serial about an alien scientist whose spacecraft crash-lands on Earth. The gentle three-foot-tall humanoid is discovered by fearful humans who, mistaking his cybernetic implants for weapons, hunt him through the woods, to his crippled ship, and blow him up. The end (with shades of Frankenstein).
Years later I did a much more ambitious comic, a proper twenty-two-page book entitled Animal World. It imagined a posthuman future Earth on which anthropomorphic lions and tigers and bears (and cockatoos and crocodiles and chinchillas and… ) waged high-tech Darwinian war against each other — carnivores versus herbivores, with the omnivorous species forced to commit to one side or live as outcast "primitives" in the wild. I used themes from the classic Greek and Roman sagas that thrilled me — heroism and villainy, political intrigue, blood feuds, even a little forbidden love between the herbivore's leader, Keras, and Ghi'ra, one of the carnivores' royal family.
Through some Dungeons-and-Dragons nerds in my sixth-grade gym class, I learned about Clint's Books and Comics. My father, the afternoon I asked him for a ride, told me about buying Mr. Natural comics there in the ’70s. I had no idea what those were, but he smiled as though recalling a fond memory. While he hit the used-record store next door, I entered Clint's solo, in search of Usagi Yojimbo, the adventures of a masterless samurai rabbit in a feudal Japan "peopled" by animals — ninja bats, vampire cats, Panda Khan. I'd read about the series someplace or other. My first impression on walking through the door was that Clint's would have it, because it looked like Clint's had everything.
Every square inch a stereotypical comic-book shop, the place was a Shangri-La. Posters layered its black walls — Vampira, Green Lantern, X-Force, Bone, the Joker and assorted Batman variants, Conan the Barbarian, Captain America, the obligatory Superman. Polyvinyl (oh, magical word!) sculptures held aggressive, anatomically suspect poses everywhere. Action figures wielded claws, swords, guns, and ion blasters on the glass counters that displayed myriad trading cards — hologram, oversized, foil-stamped, ultragloss, and more — plus pogs. Comic books (did you forget the reason you came?) screamed for attention along every wall, lunged forth from spinning wire racks, and massed in row after row of black two-tier wooden shelves spanning one full side of the shop. In the back were source books and supplements, dice and lead figurines — the role-playing paraphernalia those kids from school dealt in. In the basement, adult fare. Over, around, and through everything hung the inextricable smells of aging paper and stale cigarette smoke.
A nice Usagi Yojimbo collection, a trade paperback, was available for cover price. When I went to ring up, the man at the counter, ponytailed, bespectacled, bearded, black-clad, cannily suggested another black-and-white animal-martial-artist title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "It's not like the cartoon," Ponytail intoned, his voice roughened by authority and Marlboros. "In fact, it's fairly gritty. Dark, even." He knew who he was selling to. I bought two back issues.
But decades of back issues from the Big Two intimidated me; how could anyone start his collection with, say, Action Comics #308 (let alone #8) and not know what happened in previous issues? And what if those previous issues weren't to be found or afforded? Then there were crossovers and tie-ins to consider. Even if TPBs collecting every single story arc were available, the commitment required was staggering. Instead of taking an impetuous leap, I satisfied myself with once-removed comic-book geekery, reading the Wizard guides and Comic Shop News every month, talking the trade with old-guard fanboys at Clint's, cadging rides to conventions — sad little affairs in hotel suites and big trade-center events alike. Those tantalizing superhero comics remained beyond my summer-job budget and bedroom-closet storage capabilities, until Image came along.
Written and drawn by Todd McFarlane (renowned for his work on Spider-Man), the first Image Comics title hit shelves in May of 1992. Spawn is the Faustian tale of a murdered government assassin who bargains to see his wife again, only to be conscripted into Hell's army and discover that his widow went on to marry his best friend. Critics raved. To me it appeared sufficiently "gritty" and "dark," and because Image was a blank slate, with no burdensome back list of titles to beggar a beginning collector, I baby-stepped into the genre that, for better or worse, defines the form. Spawn #1 was mine. After that it's kind of a blur. Image burgeoned into a major publisher, and I bought everything they brought out.
Collecting in general was out of control then. Fans watched prices on precious vintage books go up, up, up, and inferred that all their favorite titles would be worth a mint someday. Vendors did nothing to disabuse them of these delusions; there was a fortune to be made in storage supplies. Every book had to go in a polybag — a clear plastic sleeve made especially for comic-book preservation — with an acid-free backing board. Issues thus packaged went into a sturdy, dark box stored somewhere cool and dry. Obsessives with money to burn could buy $400 vacuum sealers (as seen in Comic Shop News!) for keeping their paper treasures free from air, starch-hungry insects, and oily human touch forevermore. Polybags not included.
I drank this Kool-Aid. Each issue I bought got read once, cautiously, laying atop a clean, flat surface, then — thwip — slipped with a backing board into a polybag that, in turn, slid into one of five meticulously labeled Comic Defense storage boxes in my closet, beside my dresser. On rare occasions I'd treat myself to staring at covers through ten-mil ultraviolet-blocking plastic, wistfully.
Unable to reread the books in my collection, I created superhero characters of my own. The first was another alien, Shifter, whose power was to rapidly change shape. He could grow gills to breathe underwater, camouflage himself like a chameleon, morph his face to mimic a human's…. His two partners in the hero-for-hire field were a debauched telekinetic, Adrian D'arq, who insisted that his psionic ability was really sorcery, and a genetically optimized swordsman named Yang, whose blades were second only to his wit in sharpness.
Others followed — a whole constellation in the Case Comics universe: the 1960s cyborg, Dreadnaught; the wind-wielding Gail Two Hawks; the conjoined (yes, I went there) psionic Serinkov Twins; the mute madman, Andre Chevalier; the hulking Megalith; the extraterrestrial Guise, Shifter's ex-colleague; the gaseous murderer, Nobody; the cthonic mutant Derniurge; the psychotic battle-droid, RAndoM; the (literally) explosive Ryott; and more, even less interesting to read about in the abstract.
Digging deeper, I pored over books on the technical aspects of comics, their forms throughout history, their cultural influence, and culture's influence on them. I bought VHS cassettes on how to draw in comic-book styles, how to break into the industry as an artist. My parents bought me a drafting table and chair. I hung a chart of the human muscular system, for reference, on my closet door. I blew an entire month's earnings on a set of markers. Later money went to pens, a forty-dollar mechanical pencil, drawing paper. Other fourteen-year-olds had friends; I drew, every evening, for hours. That I was going to someday draw comics for a living was commonly accepted among my family.
It seems a foregone conclusion that anyone this focused on his goal is going to, if not succeed, at least admirably fail while trying. The life I fell into admitted of little vocational planning, however. Profligacy killed my juvenile dream — a death from which, unlike a beloved superhero's, there would be no astounding resurrection.
Can you ever really outgrow comic books? Even at thirty-eight, I still get a little excited whenever a new X-Men tie-in comes to theaters. Drawings of stylized Spandex-wrapped physiques affecting action-ready postures still momentarily snag my attention. Still, from time to time, the face I find myself mindlessly doodling is Shifter's. The Phenomenal Fanboy may have hung up his cape decades ago, but the iconic imagery, the outlandish premises, the devoted geekery required and rewarded, the timeless good-versus-evil struggle we humans exist in thrall to — they shine like a beacon against dark, looming clouds overhead, signaling to the former Fanboy in his lonely hideout. He looks up and feels the old rush of adventure, remembers his erstwhile compatriots' heroic exploits. A mysterious smile teases up the corners of his mouth.