“Every profound spirit needs a mask.”
Nietzsche–Beyond Good and Evil
“Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”
Jeff Albertson (also known as Comic Book Guy)-The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII
This not the book I meant to write.
For years I have said I wanted to write the High Fidelity of comic books. You know… the 2000 movie starring John Cusack based on the book by Nick Hornsby. Both of these struck a nerve with me for a variety of reasons. I’m a huge fan of music and have a collection of albums and CD’s that impress a lot of my friends who are not as into that hobby (my collection pales next to a number of people I know). I gleefully leaned over to my companion in the theater at one point to inform him that the vinyl album the characters were refusing to sell to a customer was in fact Safe As Milk, the first Captain Beefheart album, and that it featured a fifteen-year-old Ry Cooder on guitar. My friend just as gleefully told me to shut up.
The themes of High Fidelity and the lifestyle of the music fan were both ideas I related to strongly. But even more important was the depiction of the life of a retail clerk in a small, hobby-based industry. I work at a comic book store in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, the Eisner Award-nominated Phantom of the Attic. The store has been in a variety of locations on the same block of South Craig Street, sandwiched between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, since 1983. The incidents and customer interactions of the main character of High Fidelity rang as absolutely true. I have thought for a long time that the same sort of thing could be done with my experiences in the world of comics retail.
I found the quote from Nietzsche that begins this volume and part of what I wanted to do with it clicked. The idea of a mask, as it relates to comics, is obvious. There is also a larger symbolic and psychological meaning to the mask that I wanted to use as part of the theme. But the most important part of the quote was the reference to the “profound soul.” I like that idea, not only because of the direct relation to the concepts underlying the superhero, but because of how I viewed comics fandom.
The comic book fan has the weight of a tremendous stereotype on his back. Everyone can picture the awkward, socially-inept young man, living in his parents basement, anal-retentively bagging, boarding and filing his comics collection while watching Star Trek. He has often been beat up by his peers, is afraid of girls and probably the world. The comic book retailer has also been codified in the minds of the public, primarily by Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. He is arrogant and rude, the arbiter of obscure and meaningless trivia.
But I know from personal experience that these images are not, for the most part, true. I have been a comics fan all of my life and a comics retailer for a significant portion of my adult years. I have never been any of the cliches represented by Comic Book Guy, and neither have most of the customers and other fans I have met over the years. Don’t get me wrong; the above stereotype exists for a reason. I don’t deny the existence of these awkward misanthropes within our ranks. But most of the comics fans I know are regular folk, with jobs and families and responsibilities, who happen to like reading stories told with pictures. Thanks to the negative press comics have had for much of their existence these regular people have, at times, needed to hide their hobby. Until recently, the last decade or so, being seen reading comics labelled one as a mental deficient of some sort. Our hobby was relegated to small comic book stores. Most of us would wear the mask of respectability and deny our love for this media. We wore the mask of Clark Kent in public and hid our superhero nature within.
What I hoped to do with the book I wanted to write was to play up this dichotomy. I hoped to address the stereotypes, not to deny that they exist or to make fun of them, but to show the humanity that existed within: the profound soul behind the mask.
What has stopped me from writing that book is a lack of structure and plot. High Fidelity is a romance novel, set in the world of music retail. The love-life of the protagonist is the through-line that holds the narrative together. I looked for years and found nothing that really worked for me. I wrote anecdotes, made notes on actual interactions with customers, and tried to integrate a story structure with these ideas.
Nothing. It all felt contrived.
Several things have happened in my life since I first thought of this idea. Comics have become more of the mainstream. The cliches, while still existing, have diminished somewhat. Geek culture has been embraced by the media and superheroes have ruled the box office for several years now. The images and symbols of our hobby have become Pop Culture iconography (though fewer and fewer people seem to actually be reading the comics themselves).
Comics are being studied academically and given their just due as a legitimate art form. My own status as an amateur comics scholar (the only status available to someone with the geek-like tendency to research and study comics the way I did until recently), has changed to a more professional one. In spring of 2011 I taught a 300-level course on Comics and Pop Culture at Chatham University and wrote two academic articles on comics for a major publisher. I have become a regular resource person for the Toonseum, one of only three museums dedicated to the cartoon arts in America.
As a result of this my next thought about writing a book about this topic was to take the academic approach. A friend of mine, a professor at Carnegie Mellon at the time, said that I should be aware that as I was putting together my lecture notes that I was also compiling an outline for a textbook. I thought about it for awhile, and while this is true, I am nowhere near the level of academic he is, nor do I have the interest or skills to present this topic in that format. Besides, there are a lot of books out there already that cover comic book history in far more detail than I ever could. Much of what I would present would be a duplication of that work.
While my class certainly covered the history of comics and hit on all of the major touchstones of the industry, what seemed to resonate most strongly with my students were the anecdotes I told relating my personal history with the medium. It made the industry come alive for them in ways that textbooks couldn’t (and maybe I was just using the wrong textbook). In addition to my personal history I added my own thoughts about mythic symbolism and social trends. What the class ended up being was a melange of comics information filtered through my personal lenses. Perhaps this is not the most academically professional approach, but I’m old enough to have given a lot of time and research to what I presented, and comics scholarship is young enough to stand up to new ways of being presented. Comics have always been bright and loud, forging their own literary and artistic path. Perhaps comics scholarship should be the same.
2011 saw the release of Supergods:What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by comics superstar writer Grant Morrison. It was exactly the kind of approach I had been trying to find. Now, Grant has a much deeper connection with the day-to-day life of a comics professional, and he has had a… let’s say stranger, life than I have had. Still, I think I have a lot to add to the discussion. I have been a comics fan my entire life. I have been a comics retailer at a successful store for a decade and a half. I have been a professional comic book artist and publisher. I approach this topic from a number of perspectives.
I started making notes for the type of book I now wanted to write, incorporating all of these elements. I was still having doubts about the validity of this project until one of my students (my star pupil, who had just spent the summer as an intern at Marvel Comics), said to me that her impression of Supergods was, “It was just like your class last spring.”
That sealed it. I have procrastinated writing my book about comics for too long. The time is now. I need to get this down before all of my thoughts are covered by someone else.
This isn’t the book I intended to write, but it’s the one that needs to be written.