Martha Thomases: Subversive Family Reading

Over the weekend, while all the cool kids were in Baltimore for the Harvey Awards and the convention, I was at a family wedding. As such occasions are wont to do, I ruminated over my life and times.

On Friday night, at the rehearsal dinner, I was talking with a cousin who remembered that visiting our house as a child was fun because we had comic books, which her mother didn’t allow. At that time (late 1950s to early 1960s), comic books were still accused of causing juvenile delinquency, disrespect for authority and Communism.

Certainly, they did that to me.

My cousin’s life is about as different from mine as I can imagine, given our demographic similarities (over 60, female, college educated, Jewish). I live in an apartment in Manhattan; she lives in a rural part of western New York State. Until recently she worked as a carpenter; I expect it to be front-page news when I successfully change a light bulb. I know more about the Democratic candidate for Congress in her district than she does.

We both have fond memories of sitting on the porch, a pile of comics between us.

Another guest, who was not a relative, had never seen a graphic novel. He didn’t know what the term meant, thinking perhaps it was a more polite way to say pornography. We talked about the kinds of books and movies he liked, and I recommended some titles that I thought would fit with his tastes.

Why does this still happen? It’s been more than forty years since Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were written up in the New York Times Magazine for bringing a grown-up sensibility to comics with story lines “ripped from the headlines” (and much more nuanced than your average episode of Law & Order). Major bookstores at the mall have graphic novel sections. It’s one of the few growth sectors of the publishing business.

But random people still only know comics from their childhood, if at all.

They know about “comic book movies” as a genre, but think it means Batman, Iron Man, The Avengers and, maybe, Guardians of the Galaxy. They don’t know that it includes films as diverse as Scott Pilgrim and Road to Perdition and A History of Violence and Two Guns.

Why should we fix this?

Self-interest, at the least. We enjoy the medium. Some of us support our families by working in it. Because it increases the amount of interaction between the two hemispheres of our brains.

The world is better when there are lots of different kinds of comics, appealing to lots of different kinds of readers. We shouldn’t have to raise money for the people who made the medium more diverse and appealing. We shouldn’t need a movie to justify our enjoyment of the source material. We shouldn’t need to have to keep explaining that comics aren’t just for kids anymore.

How do we fix this?

I think most of the responsibility falls to us, the people who love comics, who write about comics, who create comics. We need to show that we are as varied as the people who love any other popular entertainments. We are old and young, conservative and progressive, queer, straight male, female and other. Some of us like to wear costumes for occasions other than Halloween, and some of us don’t even like to wear them then.

There is no more a typical comic book reader than there is a typical movie-goer.

(Note: I’m aware that there exist statistics that show younger people are more likely to go to the movies, but first, those statistics vary widely, and second, my point still stands. Nyaah nyaah nyaah.)

It’s a big task, and we won’t accomplish it overnight. However, it’s the kind of challenge that is most successful when a lot of people do simple, easy things, rather than a few people dedicating their every waking moment to the cause. For example, I often refer to a graphic novel I’ve read in conversation, as if reading graphic novels is something that educated people do (because it is). When I give out candy and money for UNICEF at Halloween, I include comic books as one of the treats.

Not difficult. Not earth-shattering. Way more effective if we all do it.

The wedding was lovely, by the way. The party afterwards was big fun, too. I only had to sneak away a few times to see if my pal was winning any Harvey Awards.