Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Reading History, Or How I Discovered the Joy of Reading

Anyone who knows me for any length of time will ultimately become well aware that I am an avid reader with a particular passion for super-hero comic books.  Of course, I read many kinds of literature other than the pulp stories found in the sequential artform, and so I tend to be singular among many comic book fans in that I will chew through William Faulkner or Edith Wharton and then pick up a Flash comic without skipping a beat.  I enjoy the variety, and I make no distinctions on the concepts of quality or artistic value - only on understanding what each literary work is trying to accomplish.  As such I've been able to always appreciate on some level a wide variety of genres and story types.  And, my reading life is the richer for it.

But, why and how does one become a reader, not in the mechanical sense of the word, but in the emotional one?  How does the passion for the written word first get ignited and then get fanned into becoming an essential part of one's life?  And, why do some have it and others do not?  For a long time, I've held the belief that the use of language, the ability to communicate abstract ideas and concepts through it, is a quality unique to humans and truly one of the few things that absolutely separates us from other living creatures.

In recent years, I've developed a lesson in which I have my students examine their own reading histories.  I have them think back on when (if ever) reading became a presence in their lives.  Their stories are varied and sometimes heartbreaking in how many of them don't get the crucial early childhood reading experiences so vital to creating lifelong readers.  

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
Consider the cover as rendered by the magnificent George Perez.  With an ease and simplicity I don't see in many modern-day comics, it communicates the central conflict so crucial to the story: a group of super villains are planning to attack some super heroes.  And it is done with no big action scene, but a carefully crafted tableau - the villains are merely standing in front of computer-generated headshots of the heroes while Killer Frost crosses them out one by one.  This cover very brilliantly drew me into the story before I took one look at the pages inside.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it started the story for me - I was curious about this group of bad guys ominously threatening the heroes and, more importantly, I wanted to know what was going to happen.

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 the splash title: "Targets On Two Worlds."  I had to carefully sound that one out.  I knew what targets meant and to whom it referred, but I was clueless about the "two worlds."  Were the villains from a different planet?  Again, I had no conception of the greater DC Universe that existed at the time or the multitude of characters that inhabited it.

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
Once I recovered from the delightful shock of the pin-up, I moved on to the rest of the story, the part where some of the villains begin their attacks on the heroes.  The first to fall was the blond-haired woman (the Black Canary as I learned years later), who was ambushed and knocked unconscious by the Mist.  Then, I read through Hawkman's battle and subsequent capture - he was tricked into picking up a remote controlled monocle that could shoot laser blasts and was rendered unconscious.  And, finally, Wonder Woman was defeated by the Cheetah, the last panel depicting a ferocious looking Cheetah descending upon a dazed Wonder Woman as she lay at the foot of the Washington Monument.

JLA #195, Pg. 22
As I examined that last panel, two things occurred to me.  First, the heroes featured in the issue were the same ones marked by an X on the first page.  And, so I had my first encounter with not-so-subtle foreshadowing.  Second, for the first time, I realized that comic book stories aren't always resolved in one issue, that the heroes are left in dire situations that need to be continued a month later in the next installment.  Thus my young mind became enticed once again, this time by the tried and true methods of the serialized format.  What was going to happen next?  Would the remaining heroes be captured as well?  How would they get themselves out of this?

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
About what must have been a month later, I recall seeing the cover to the next installment, Justice League of America #196.  It featured the white gorilla character (the Ultra-Humanite as I would also learn years later) standing over the unconscious bodies of several of the same heroes.  I didn't actually read this issue until years later, and, indeed, the memory of having seen it had left me until I once again gazed upon it as a teenager at a comic book booth at a local flea market.  However, I do remember the last issue, the one where the heroes escape their captors and defeat them in a huge battle

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
And it was in those moments that my imagination flourished under the power of a compelling story.  For the first time, I negotiated all by myself the beginning, middle, and end of a story, albeit in incomplete bits and pieces.  I understood and even sympathized with the initial crushing defeat the heroes had suffered and then rejoiced in their wily plan to stop the villains, who had run amok in their absence.

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.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful reading history! Thanks for sharing it.


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