Martha Thomases: Comic books make me a better person
I love comic books. I have since I was five years old. I even love comic books I don’t like. I love the way the whole of words and pictures is bigger (and better) than the parts. I love the way that great storytellers can take a blank piece of paper (or computer screen) and make anything happen.
Comic books make me a better person.
This point was brought home to me this weekend, when I read this amazing story. In case you don’t read it (and you should because, like I said, amazing), it’s about an autistic young man who found a way to articulate his feelings and communicate with other people through Walt Disney Studios animated films.
Now, I don’t know much about autism,and it is not my intention here to act like I’m any kind of expert. However, in reading the story, I was reminded how much I learned about people from popular culture. The kid in the story used Disney cartoons. I liked them, too.
But it was comics that really taught me empathy.
Any fiction (and quite a bit of non-fiction) can put the reader into the head of another character, will let you see the world through her eyes. Comics can do this, and also let you see exactly how difference another being’s experience can be.
For example, when I was a kid, I loved the Legion of Super-Heroes. I started pretty much when the team did, with three members, two boys and a girl, all white as the driven snow. I liked Saturn Girl, but she was not a lot like me. I had trouble imagining what it was like to be her. However, as I read more stories, the team got more members. Triplicate Girl had brown hair, just like me. Shrinking Violet was shy, just like me.
And there was Chameleon Boy, with his orange skin and his antenna. He was funny. and cracked jokes, just like me. Brainiac 5 had green skin, and he was so smart that sometimes he annoyed the other kids, just like I did. I learned that I could identify with someone who didn’t look like me, whose body didn’t work the same way mine did, who came from a place way way different from Youngstown, Ohio.
Superhero comics literally taught me how to see the world through the eyes of others. What I mean is, sometimes the artist would depict the scenes from a character’s point of view, not from the outside. Along with captions and thought balloons, it was like being in another person’s head.
Later, when I was in Sunday School and learned about Marrano Jews, I already had some understanding of what it meant to have a secret identity. I’d seen people who had them who were not Jewish (although most, I would later learn, had been created by Jews). It helped me to understand other kinds of people who might feel they had to hide their differences from the mainstream.
It’s a little bit roundabout that I made the leap to understanding other humans through Durlans, Coluans and Kryptonians. I felt what it was like to be alien from actual aliens, not from meeting people from other countries. I felt what it was like to be different inside from the Thing in The Fantastic Four, not from knowing someone of another race or gender identity.
Does that sound condescending? That’s not my intention. I’m trying to explain how a five-year old, or an eight year old — and sometimes a 60 year old — needs stories (graphic and otherwise) to see the humanity in other humans. That’s what artists do.
And I’m grateful.