A friend told me that the word nostalgia means, literally, pain from the past. For me it is a mixture of pain and pleasure, celebration and regret.
As I raise my children, I find myself mining the library, and the net for the media and culture I experienced at their age. I don’t know why I do this. Why relive my childhood while I’m living through something that is real, here and now? Am I trying to understand them or myself?
Comic books for me were the gateway drug for reading; mainly reading Science fiction and fantasy, which is what most comic books actually are, at their core. I collected comics for a period of a few years, reaching back a few years through the piles of back issues sans covers in the basement of Economy Books, in Syracuse New York.
Syracuse had no comic book store; I knew nothing of comic book conventions, and I never had the gumption to buy the mail order catalogs of back issues advertised in every issue I bought. (I did once order the 1000 roman soldiers advertised in about a billion comics of that era, and was rewarded by the small padded envelope containing ten crude plastic racks of 100 pea-sized plastic figures which arrived a few months later. An early lesson in the cruelty of capitalism: caveat emptor.)
I was a reader, not a collector, though I admit to being fooled into buying a few dozen ‘first issue specials’ (there was a series called ‘first issue special’, as I recall, which debuted a series of instantly forgotten characters…) I started out reading a few superhero titles, but was gradually snared into buying pretty much the entire marvel line-up to follow the complex storys which twisted through most of the titles. You’d be reading the Fantastic Four, and all of sudden, BAM, you missed something that it turns out happened in the Agengers. So now you have to get that Avengers. Hm. Now you have to get all the Avengers you can get your hands on, too. And so on.
As a kid you think you’re interesed in the characters, and the writers and artists feel secondary. At some point, though, you realize, that the books are created by the writers and artists, and that a good book could, in a single issue, turn into pure shit, if the creative team was broken up and moved somewhere else, which happened regularly.
So, quality in a comic book is this ephemeral frission of writer, artist, and character, which happens now and again. One long-standing team, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby, of course, created a canon of characters which has grossed untold billions of dollars for the faceless, brutal corporation which held ownership of the intellectual property they created. (Marvel is now part of the Disney Borg Collective. God help it.)
Starting around 1960 (which is around when I started) they forged a mythos out of the end stages of the post war boom, generally radiation power archetypes designed to play against type, reinventions of the superhero as defined by DC, their competitor. Instead of ultra-rich alpha males, Batmen, invulnerable aliens pure of heart and spirit, we had the relunctant superhero, Spiderman, the accidental Jeckle and Hyde, the Hulk, and the dysfunctional family of superheros, the Fantastic Four.
I read and reread the comics. Each comic was too short to contain much of an experience, but I found if I had a dozen or so comics of a given title, I could read them at a single sitting, creating in my mind a damn fine animated feature film.
It took me awhile to realize that some of the multiple titles containing the same characters (there were multiple books featuring Spiderman and the Fanstic Four for example) were reprints of earlier books; references to previous issues as footnotes finally sunk in and I realized that each title was really a single long story, in the mid seventies, somewhere between issue 100 and 200, for most of the characters I was following. It was a sobering realization. How would I ever catch up? I couldn’t afford to buy the back issues. there were no libraries of these things. The experience was fragmentary, exasperating. The objects themslves fragile. and the cost per minute of reading, compared to a novel, astonomical.
I could buy a paperback for 1.25; the price of five comics. I could read the five comics in an hour. The book would take 5-10 hours to read. Used prices for these things scaled similarly. My desire to escape the here and now of adolescence coupled with my financial means drove me away from comics. That, and an experience in middle school which makes me shiver to the present day.
It was the first day of sixth grade, first day of a new school. Our math teacher, a disturbingly pretty and well-built young woman, set aside half of the first day of class for us to ‘get to know’ each other. I was paired with a cute woman of my age, whom I was told to tell something about myself. What I liked to do. What I enjoyed. I was tremulously excited by the whole thing. An ice-breaker! With an actual girl! Hormones had begun to drive me mad at that point. I thought a lot about girls.
I said I liked comic books.
“Comic books??” She made a face as if she had smelled something very bad. I knew instantly I had made a terrible mistake.
“Yeah,” I said. “Comic books.”
So began the most miserable three years of my existence.
I’ve since made friends who were more resourceful that I was, living near bigger cities, who got farther with their collections, who attended conventions, who aquired encylopedic knowlege of the writers, artists, inkers and colorists, who made these books. My comic collecting, and reading was half-assed. (Like a lof of what I do.)
But now…now it is possible to find on-line, in peer to peer shared filess, the entire continuitys of these characters…for free. I bought the first 40 years of the Fantastic four for 40 dollars. The other titles are dribbling into my hard drive as we speak as CBR archives. The final piece of the puzzle is the ipad, whose glowing color screen and perfect touch screen interface makes reading these archives almost as good as fondling the fragile paper products themselves.
Now I can read the whole damn story. Every last bit of it.
The problem is, a lot of this stuff is pretty terrible, dull, repititive, stilted, juvenile. Still, somehow, there is a feeling of accomplishment. The kid who couldn’t afford these things, who could never get enough of them, who gave them up more out of practicality than desire, can now find…closure.
My son, 13, reads Manga. My 11 year old reads other things (though the complete mad spy vs spy entranced him worlessly for a hundred hours)
And I am finishing the collection I began at ten years old, remembering some of what I read, while some of it is new, enjoying the clothes, hairstyles, pop culture references more than the endless punch outs and shattered buildings. Nixon! Hippies! Women’s Lib!
I have no real desire to read beyond my era; I want to read the comics from my birth to about my 15th birthday… the slick, full-colored things that the comics grew into…I don’t know if I’ll be interested in that. And in some wierd way it feels like something is completed as I do it, some forgotten thing found, some missing piece falling into place.
And maybe somehow it helps me figure out what I do next.
PS: This is one of a series of notes I wrote a few years ago before I started writing fiction again; I’d forgotten about them until a new FB friend found and ‘liked’ one. I’d given up on blogging under my own name at that point, as I’d noticed that I got almost no hits on the blog, but my FB stuff was ‘liked’ and commented on by many. So, for the record, the boys are now 15 and 13 and we’re watching stuff from the 60s 70s and 80s that I remember, in and around the new stuff. The project continues, but I can see its end now, in a few years, as my teens become young adults, and I leave my second, and perhaps final, childhood behind.