I also participate in the exercise myself and share my own reading history with my students. It, of course, involves comics books, and I would like to share it here on my blog.
My Reading History, Or How I Discovered the Joy of Reading
The earliest memory I have of engaging in a story is at a pre-school age in which I would look through various comic books on the magazine rack at a local convenience store. I say "look through" because I can remember not being able to read the captions and word balloons and only looking at the pictures to piece together the story from what I saw.
From these experiences, only images remain, impressions. Spider-man diving off a dock to retrieve his sunken Spider-mobile. The Flash trapped in a yellow bubble floating up to a spaceship in low orbit around the Earth. Batman being dangled over a fire pit by a headless villain who was clad all in white. These images, among others, stick out to me from my childhood, but they don't form a cohesive collection of storytelling in my mind. They are just action visuals that enticed the mind of a young boy and made an indelible impression, which is, of course, what they were designed to do.
It was during one of these momentary excursions at the magazine rack that I encountered my first real experience in reading and following a story - not just the cool imagery, but an actual story that excited my imagination. The comic book was Justice League of America #195. It was the first part of a three-part story in which members of the JLA teamed up with the golden-age members of the Justice Society of America to battle the Secret Society of Super-Villains.
Yes, I know when I describe it like that, it sounds like a cheesy, run-of-the-mill episode of the Super Friends. But, believe me, to my five-year-old sensibilities there was so much more to it than the silliness I encountered on Saturday morning cartoons.
|Justice League of America, No. 195|
Okay, I was a five-year-old and had fallen for what was essentially an advertising gimmick. It had certainly happened before when I was putting the stories together by piecemeal images. But, what was different this time was that it sparked me to become interested in what was written and not just some cool scenes of action. It was the first time I sat down in front of the magazine rack and tried to actually read and figure out what the story was really about.
At the same time, I was also puzzled by the differences I saw in some of the characters familiar to me. As I looked more closely at the cover, I noticed Superman had white hair on his temples. Huh? Also, the Cheetah didn't quite look the same as she did on the Super Friends. Weird. And, that guy wearing the winged helmet in the red shirt with the lightning bolt on it - that wasn't the Flash. Who were these people?
At the time, I had no clue about the intricacies of the DC Multiverse or alternate timelines or that these unfamiliar characters were different versions of more familiar characters. I just knew that something seemed unusual about this story, and it intrigued me all the more.
And then I opened the book to the first page.
Two rows of hero headshots, looking almost identical to the cover. Except...what was different? Oh, wait. Only three of the heroes had X's over their pictures. Why the difference from the cover? Why were Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and the blond woman I didn't recognize the only ones marked out?
|JLA #195, Page 1|
And there was the old Superman again and the strange-looking Flash...
So, I kept turning the pages. I tried my best to take in all I could of the words as well as the images, desperately trying to figure out the story before my mother called me over to leave the store.
I glided over the part in which the villains gathered together and hatched their nefarious plot to kidnap (?) the heroes. And they seemed to be following the orders of a white gorilla.
The Ragdoll character was cool and creepy, like the Joker would eventually be when I finally learned just how scary he really was. And, Killer Frost had a different look - first time I ever saw a female comic book character, hero or villain, wearing what appeared to be an evening gown...and pearls. She was clearly going to take on the guy whose head was on fire because...well...ice...fire...obviously. And the old man who looked like a floating head and hands in the middle of a cloud. He was...the Mist? No brainer there.
Suddenly, my fevered digestion of the characters and the story came to a halt when I hit upon something I had positively NEVER seen before in a comic book. My senses were snatched away from the events of the story, and I was once again overtaken by an image that has stayed with me throughout my life, partly because of the surprise and delight it inspired in me and partly because of the vast curiosity it evoked: a two-page spread featuring a pin-up of all the heroes I was reading about and then some.
I didn't know one group was the Justice League while the other was the Justice Society, the counterpart super-hero group from an alternate Earth (so taken was I by the assemblage of heroes, the team titles went completely unnoticed by me - but, cut me some slack; I was five). I just knew that some of the characters I clearly recognized, some I didn't, and some looked off in one detail or another.
|The Pin-up That Blew My Mind|
And, I also noticed the symmetry: the versions of Superman and Wonder Woman I knew (the ones to the left) were standing in mirrored positions to their slightly-off versions. I gathered that meant that the other characters were positioned similarly, so Batman (who had no obvious counterpart on the other team) must be connected to the one who looked like a far-too-grown (and somewhat threatening) Robin.
In the years since, I have learned that the artist, George Perez, has a penchant for symmetry and carefully structured composition in his work. It is simultaneously a strength and a weakness in his style in that some images (like the one included here) are wonderfully detailed and beautiful while others, particularly action sequences, can occasionally come across as too neat and clean, a little phony and choreographed even.
However, I digress. Back to my reading experience...
|JLA #195, Pg. 20|
|JLA #195, Pg. 22|
Sometimes, I would get whichever adult I was with to buy a comic book for me. This time, for reasons I can't remember, I didn't get this particular issue. Instead, I put it back on the magazine rack and kept postulating about the story in the back of my head, reflecting on how the three heroes had been defeated as well as that peculiar pin-up.
|JLA 195, Pg. 24|
This final chapter, Justice League of America #197, is the one I read again and again, scrutinizing every panel, every word. I don't remember the circumstances of how I acquired a copy of the issue, but it must have been one I picked up at a convenience store, and my mother or father must have been in enough good humor to decide to buy it for me. Regardless, I had my own copy to peruse over and over in the quiet of my bedroom.
|Justice League of America, No. 196|
I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing one of the most powerful emotions a good story can elicit from a reader: closure. Even being that young and with limited life experience, I had begun to realize that life offered very little in the way of finality or a sense of completion. Things just seem to go on and on, ever evolving into something else, without really giving us a chance to put a period at the end of an experience. And, the irony of human existence is that we crave this almost above and beyond anything else. Stories give us that. They put a nice bow on an experience, so we can say, "That was the point of it all," and then neatly move on to something else.
|Justice League of America, No. 197|
This silly adventure in a comic book opened up for me a world of escape. A world of order and clarity. And, as I grew older, the respite and certainty provided by reading, by comic books especially, allowed me a way to navigate a life becoming increasingly more complicated and difficult. I honestly don't know how I could have gotten through some of the more harrowing moments in my life without having the written word to rely upon.
So I continue reading. And, I continue writing, an act directly born out of my reading life. And, I cling to both of these as rocks upon which my life is built.