I have a stack of about 200 comics piling up. Traditionally, the week's new books sit in my upstairs den for a time before I bag them and file them in the racks of boxes in the basement. But I haven't bagged and boxed for months. I used to methodically catalog each one, but ever since Wizard World went paysite, I've given up on that. Seeing all these books piling up here behind me, I have to wonder how I got here in the first place...
One of the first books I remember was Aristokittens #4, July 1974. This book wasn't mine (I was born in February of that year), although I somehow ended up getting it. I think it originally belonged to some nameless cousins of some nameless neighbors of an aunt. It was in their camper. I would guess I was three or so when I got it. It's a well-read book, by any definition. The cover is so tattered with folds and cracks that it looks like I must have slept on top of it. And I might have.
I have another early comic related memory; the family was parked at a gas station, and I recall begging Dad to buy me a comic book on his way out. Maybe I saw one of those great old wire comics racks through the window. Or maybe it was a rack of Pennsylvania maps. What I don't recall is if Dad bought me one or not.
In my preschool years, I read lots of Harvey books. I had plenty of Richie Riches, but my favorites were Hot Stuff and Spooky. Today, I'd call that an early sign of my natural inclination toward characters that are just left of center... and a little dark. Richie Rich was boring, had everything he could ever want, yet dressed like the butler. Hot Stuff was a goddamn devil who could shoot flames out of his pitchfork and tended to be in a bad mood.
But I quickly turned on to the Disney Duck books, particularly Uncle Scrooge. Again, a character who seems supremely flawed on the surface: he's greedy and values his money over his family. But the Duck stories always delivered smart dialogue and high adventure. I remember noticing how different Disney comics were compared to Disney cartoons. I couldn't have articulated it then, but your average Disney cartoon revolved around blackout gags of Mickey or whoever getting into (and out of) stupid situations... the comics stories just seemed somehow smarter. I had trouble resolving the cartoons showing Donald Duck being unable to wrap a fucking Christmas present with the Donald Duck who worked with Uncle Scrooge to fight off the Beagle Boys and competed with Gladstone Gander for Daisy's affections. In fact, to this day, when I read a Duck story, I don't "hear" Donald's slobbery, slurred Clarence Nash voice... I still hear a sort of Everyman, exasperated by the boys and anxious to curry his rich uncle's favor.
By the early 1980s, I had discovered Spider-Man. I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect my first exposure to the character was the segments on Electric Company. For years, my grandmother funded a mail order subscription to Amazing (which coincidentally ended with #252, May 1984, when Spidey comes back from the Secret Wars with the black suit.) Although I was too young to fully appreciate the more adult storylines, I did learn quite a bit about the metaworld of comics. Not just the concepts of super heroes and secret origins and crossovers, but letter columns, fanboys, continuity... all flowing from the monthly Bullpen Bulletin, where Stan Lee would rant about his strange universe. I hope the editors of today realize how valuable those columns and editorials are... they reinforce the notion that reading comics is a club, with a long history, secret terminology, and something incredible is always coming next month. To me, they also revealed that actual grown ups were behind all this, and they were creating stories just for my world.
As video games were born, and the new wave of action cartoons appeared on television, the passive nature of comic books began to drop off my radar.
But right before I left, I found two important titles. I saw issue 20 (Nov. 1983) of DC's Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew at the local drug store. I convinced Mom to buy it for me based on the cover blurb that advertises a guest appearance by Changeling of the Teen Titans. ("See Mom? It says there's a Teen Titan in this issue!") Mom wasn't convinced, but she bought it anyway. In truth, I didn't care about Changeling either; I wanted to learn about the animals in super hero outfits. Zoo Crew combined the modern hero concept with the animal stories I loved. It was the first genre-busting comic book I had ever read... the visuals of a Disney Duck book with the pacing and feel of Spider-Man. I didn't know then that #20 was the last issue, but Captain Carrot essentially setup my mindset for my return to comics several years later.
The other surprise find was DC's Ambush Bug. My first Bug book was Ambush Bug #3, where he describes the sillier points of DC's Silver Age history. Today, I'm surprised I picked it up; it's barely a comic book at points, more like a visual documentary. But Ambush Bug was funny, and he was mocking all the established comic book conventions that I had learned from Spider-Man not five years before. Just like Zoo Crew, Ambush Bug showed me another way comic books could entertain... through satire. It probably also helped that I was just getting into Saturday Night Live at the time.
But like I said, other media was beckoning. For a couple years I dropped out of the scene... had Zoo Crew or Ambush Bug been ongoing series I might have stuck around to explore the new variety.
One day in seventh grade, a friend mentioned an incredibly silly sounding title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Turtles covered a lot of pop culture ground solely on the strength of that long, stupid name. I had to check it out, and I ended up riding the TMNT books right into comicdom's black and white explosion.
I still like the Turtles. For one thing, they inspired me to improve my drawing skills. Something about a black and white comic makes you pay more attention to the artistry. They built upon Captain Carrot's animals-as-heroes foundation and took it one step further: the Turtles were serious. Of course, they were bastardized by the TV cartoon later on, but back then, they were total badasses. However, the most important thing the Turtles did for me was get me into the comic store.
Another point to remember: In 1987, comic stores didn't have rows of statues and toys, Magic: The Gathering, or big budget movies to get you to walk in and shop. As I recall, the best Comic Store West could do was lots of posters. Comix Connection had an inflatable Spidey. Once I walked in to check out TMNT, I walked out with tons of other independant stuff. Lots of it was just around to cash in on the Turtles craze, but some cream did rise to the top. Sam and Max. Milk and Cheese. Space Ark. Critters. This was when I became a serious collector and began bagging and boxing my books. Not to mention the crucial discovery of back issue boxes.
Although I was still actively avoiding the super hero books. Partially because I felt I already knew too much about the hobby. I knew that if I started buying Batman, I'd need to commit to several different monthly titles, continuous crossovers, and a huge store of back issues. But secretly, I preferred the animal stuff, and animal stuff was huge.
When the dust settled and the industry shrunk, 99% of my regular books disappeared. So, realizing that I now enjoyed the very concept of comic books, I took the plunge back into the super hero books. At first, I stuck with the big event titles... DC's Invasion, Marvel's Infinity Gauntlet. But by the end of high school, I was adding regular titles to my subscription list... The Flash, Green Lantern. When Superman died, I added all the Super-titles and Justice League. The abortive Heroes Reborn event brought me into Fantastic Four. I began to embrace the critical culture and sought out high-profile books I had overlooked like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. In the days before trade paperbacks, I rooted out the entire Crisis on Infinite Earths series and as many Crisis Crossovers as I could find. I picked up several comics histories and multitudes of classic comics reprints from the 1930s to the 1970s, not only the DC and Marvel stuff but also all of the EC Tales from the Crypt books.
Today I spend about $100 a month on comic books. That's really not that much when you consider an average price of $3 a book. I get all the DC team books, all the Superman books, Fantastic Four, Tangled Web, Flash, Green Lantern... and lots of specials/miniseries like Marvel's Universe X, Thundercats, Danger Girl, and various Elseworlds books. I've even circled back into the "independants" with Rising Stars, Liberty Meadows and the latest Ninja Turtles series. I've often wondered when it will all end. Will I cancel everything one day and try to sell my collection on eBay?
My answer remains: I really like this style of anthology entertainment. It's ongoing drama, but not edited to fit a two hour window like a movie. You can experience it whenever you want, unlike the tyrannical schedules of television. Modern books are free to write realistically and dramatically, while still including the usual amounts of action. And there's a million different artistic styles to enjoy and examine. And although the super heroes are still the dominant genre, there's plenty of variety to be found... even among the super heroes themselves.