Why Do You Read
Comic Books?
Written: 18 January, 1998

(The following post was my response to a questionaire posted by Goldenager on one of Jonah's Comic Book Resources boards.)

Did you read comics as a child?

Yep. Started around 5 years old, and as the years rolled along, I got progressively more into it. By the time I was 13 years I was very knowledgeable about comics.

: If so, are you still attracted to the same qualities in comics that attracted you then?

Well, I'm still attracted to the work of certain creators I liked then. I think I had good taste as a kid. But things keep getting added to the mix as one ages. I like Gil Kane's art more since becoming an adult than I did before, don't know why. But my love for Ditko and 1950s horror comics and Alex Toth began at the age of 12. (Hard to believe I was that young, but I was. The publication dates of comics I bought back then prove it. I love that aspect of comics, too. You can always check back and see exactly how old you were when you bought it new.) And I still love that stuff like Ditko, Toth, etc.

What are the qualities that attract me to comics? Part of it might be that comics tend to be easy to read. Part of it might be that, like other artforms, comics take the reader to another world -- a world which was created by somebody else, reflecting their own unique way of looking at the world. So, it's like looking through somebody else's eyes.

Maybe the comics page makes me feel like I'm closer to the creator. When I read a prose book -- and I'm definitely not knocking them, since I will often choose to read a prose book rather than a comic, depending on my mood -- but when I read prose, I don't see the author's penmanship. He may describe a scene with great clarity, but inevitably I might envision my own living room, or a living room I've been in, rather than the living room the author had in mind. I'll make changes to accomodate his descriptions, but part of me will keep conjuring up locales that I've experienced with which to set the stage. In a comic, however, I see what the artist wanted me to see. It comes from his experience, not mine. So, that unique personality of the creator is probably what attracts me most, and that sense that I am closer to his vision than in any other medium.

: Is writing or art more important to you, or do they both play an equal part in how much you enjoy a given comic?

I've always held that both elements are fundamental to comics -- that you can't have one without the other. You can have a comic that has no words, but unless it has a narrative structure (a story, even if not told with words), then it's not a comic, it's (as Jim Salicrup, I think, once pointed out) a portfolio.

: What do you look for in good comic book writing?

It all depends. Do I want to be simply entertained, or enlightened, or educated, or what? Depends on the comic. I'm willing to accept any and all of the above (heck, all at the same time). I always look for intelligence. A good writer writes about more than just X vs. Z. The much-maligned Silver-Age had more, much more intelligence than is often acknowledged. Even some very silly stories had writers demonstrating their knowledge of science, history, etc. Dumb mistakes can ruin a story for me. If Edgar Allan Poe's name is consistently mispelled (as "Allen") throughout a story, I get irritated by the story. There was a Flash story in a 1970s Adventure Comics where the writer (Cary Bates, maybe) had a scientist saying something like "Long before Columbus landed at Plymouth Rock..." I don't know if I ever finished the story after that panel.

Whenever I think of cool writing in superhero comics, I tend to think of some of the 1970s folks like Englehart and Gerber. Their work had a lot of humor and freshness, I think. I also like writers who show a feeling of rhythm and poetry in their captions and dialogue. This is one reason why I love old 1950s horror-type comics, because they would sometimes have big captions of narration which I'd feel like reading aloud.

Here's the opening of a story called "Missing Persons," as reprinted in Chamber of Chills #13 (Marvel, 1974).

He came into the bar every night at this hour! It was quiet... men were home eating supper and the night crowd hadn't started going out yet... The bartender brought his drink and he stood there, silently toasting the dying day, liking the quiet that was accentuated by the buzz of a bluebottle fly...

Yes, it was quiet, except for the fly and the querulous voice of the old bum who also was always here at this hour, paying with conversation for the beer he cadged...

FIRST MAN (TO BARTENDER): Bring me another!

BARTENDER: Comin' up!

That voice, with its whiskey hoarseness... most nights he didn't mind it, paid no attention to it, or was amused...

BUM (TO BARTENDER): Yup, like I said... these ain't just ordinary missin' people! These folks've been kidnapped! Yup, kidnapped by monsters from another world!

But tonight the voice got on his nerves! Always the bum had an answer for everything... always a farfetched, crazy answer...

You get the idea. A five-page moody horror tale from the 1950s. The main attraction to me of such stories was the script, not the art. Sometimes I even disliked the art, but read it anyway and loved the comic because of the stories. I think those kinds of comics, those short anthology titles with moody little stories are my favorites writing-wise. And although this story had a twist ending, like most of the better ones back then (although twist endings have since become tiresome), the story I just presented has as its final panel a man walking down the darkened street, with the caption: "He walked out into the night, toward the yellow fan of light that pushed the shadows away from the saloon down the street...." I like those kinds of endings best, the more atmospheric endings -- which seem to end as if there is more to the story (of course, there isn't, that's part of the beauty of it).

As for dialogue, here's all the words from one page of Frontline Combat #11 (EC, 1952):

SOLDIER #1: Hey, Marines! Here come the planes! I guess we'll be moving, soon!

SOLDIER #2: We'll be up the ridge in no time!

SOLDIER #3: I just as well stay right here!

SOLDIER #1: The sooner we get up there the sooner we'll be relieved!

SOLDIER #2: Yeah, doc! I wanna get back to the rest camp and whip up a batch o' saki!

SOLDIER #3: How you make that there saki?

SOLDIER #2: Waal... various people has their various ways! ...I get a big pot, see... I fills 'er with water and sets 'er on a fire to boil an' I put a lid on top! I set some rice on the lid! Then I catch the drippings off the lid in little cans!.... Presto! SAKI!!

NARRATION: ...Funny! Here we sit! Not more than 100 yards away, men are shooting at us trying to kill us, and here we sit talking about how to make Japanese beer!

[The next panel, the final one on the page, is a wordless panel of a shell exploding in their faces. No sound effect, no words.]

In the superhero genre, here are some powerful words, from the mouth of Green Arrow: "On the streets of Memphis a good black man died... and in Los Angeles, a good white man fell... Something is wrong! Something is killing us all...!"

So maybe that's the kind of writing i like. The kind that makes you go, "Whoa, that was well-written!" I guess maybe the writing I like best draws from the real world, not comics. That said, I also like cute writing like in Arn Saba's Neil the Horse which makes one feel happy.

: What do you look for in good comic book art?

I like art that's better than I can draw, than I could ever hope to draw. I like art that doesn't try to copy whatever is currently trendy, abandoning it's creator's individuality in the process. I like art that looks like the artist who drew it shares my tastes, or is inspired by artists that I myself like (this is probably why I like Byrne, since he, too, obviously likes Kirby & Ditko). I like artists who bring something new to the table. I'm not against distortion or weirdness as long as it looks fresh and honest and intelligent. There was an artist on Doom 2099 near the end who drew some really distorted stuff. It was so distorted it was cartoony. That was one of the comics I tried when I bought a dozen new comics in 1996, simply to test the waters. And of all the comics I bought that day, I thought that Doom 2099 had the most interesting art. I also have very much enjoyed odd art in Judge Dredd comics. At least it looked different and individualistic, and wasn't trying to cash in on some current trendy style. But generally I prefer those artists who draw on older styles for inspiration. It shows that they weren't born yesterday and that their influences extend beyond the walls of the Image offices. Heck, if I was majorly influenced by Alex Toth when I was only twelve years old, then an actual professional's influences had better be pretty varied and demonstrate taste and intelligence!

: Is continuity an important issue to you? If so, how important?

No, not really. And I dislike when writers try to resolve continuity problems in convoluted ways. I recently read Byrne's 1991 Omac series and enjoyed most of it, but when I read the final issue, it left the whole mini-series feel like a waste because it made it seem like the whole mini-series' reason for existing was to explain a big long convoluted continuity thing. (More convoluted than that sentence, in fact.) Addressing continuity matters in comics is like a writer trying to swim through quicksand with a suitcase full of money. The entertainment value of such stories is often questionable, and being so bogged down in comics obscuria is a good way to kill a narrative's momentum. It's better to leave stuff alone. It would be like Stephen Ambrose writing a long convoluted novel simply to explain the stubble on Richard Nixon's jowls. In other words, better left unsaid.

On the other hand, i hate how Mark Waid portrays Sharon Carter way differently than the old Sharon I remembered (of course, that may have something to do with the tough current Sharon fitting in with a current comics trend), and I wish Black Widow didn't look younger every year. Again, maybe my criticism of that has to do with disliking the trendiness of the change, disliking the idea of changing a character simply to make them more popular with half-wits.

By the way, Omac was another Byrne time-travel story. By the end, i wondered if the whole story had even really happened, and just shaking my head and wondered if my Kirby Omac comics had really happened, or what. Hopefully that's not a sample of what this forthcoming WW time-travel storyline will be like.

: Do you tend to prefer one company over another, and if so, why? Also, if not, why not?

I prefer some companies over other companies, but that's only because some companies don't publish stuff I like. If a company publishes stuff I like, then I add it to my list of companies to keep an eye on, because they might publish more stuff that I will like. It's as simple as that.

Whenever I get a new copy of Previews, one of the first things I do is flip to the "A" section. There are a few companies that start with "A" that publish work of interest to me. "A-List" publishes B&W reprints of 1940s comics. "Aardwolf" is a company that Dave Cockrum is somehow involved in, and I like to keep up on his latest projects since I liked his old X-Men and Legion. "AC Comics" is a company which -- aside from its "FemForce" comics, which I don't read -- publishes reprints of Golden-Age comics, especially westerns, and the company is run by Bill black, who is knowledgeable about both subjects. Finally, there is "ACG," which reprints comics that had originally been published by Charlton and the real ACG during the Silver-Age. So, if a company puts out something I find interesting, I'll be interested in that company.

: Do you prefer comics that attempt to make a sophisticated commentary on the comic-book genre (i.e. Watchmen, Starman, Kurt Busiek's Astro City), or do you prefer comics that just tell good stories and don't aim for anything higher (Leave it to Chance, Fantastic Four)? And do you think there is much of a difference?

Let me get this straight... You mean, comics which are about comics? I've enjoyed some, obviously, but in the end there always seems to be something lacking for me in such comics. I think the one currently which deals with other comics that I've been thinking of trying is an independent comic by Marc Hempel called "Tug & Buster." I read two pages of it in an indy preview comic and thought it was pretty funny. And I noticed a local shop had some copies of it, but I haven't yet bought an issue. But there's always something half-embarrassing about enjoying a comic about comics, i think. If you mean do I like comics that take superheroes seriously, the answer is, sometimes. I did like O'Neil/Adams' GL/GA, and Miller's DD (got #191 a few months ago in a cheap box and it was an incredibly good, riveting read) but i think a really realistic, serious superhero comic is a contradiction. In the real world anyone wearing a cape and tights in public would be sent to the looney bin, and we'd all applaud that result. Not sure if that answers the question.....

: Are you attracted by the idea of the superhero, or was it a hurdle you had to get over when getting into comics?

I'd rather see less superhero comics around. I enjoy a variety of genres and want to see more being published. Having said that, I have enjoyed superhero comics as much as the next person and it was never a hurdle to overcome.

: Marvel and DC were very different companies back in the 60's, with different emphases, audiences, and goals. Are you more attracted to Marvel's or DC's Silver-Age comics?

I enjoy both equally. They both had fantastic creators working for them. I also tend to enjoy Silver-Age comics by other companies, too. As a kid, I grew up mostly with the Marvel Silver-Age (in reprint form), moreso than the DC Silver-Age, but by 15 or 16 years old, I was buying 1960s issues of Action, Superman, Detective, Strange Adventures, etc. I've been working more lately on obtaining more 1960s DCs than 1960s Marvels, though. But I still pick up the odd 1960s issues of Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, or Tales of Suspense at cons when the price is right.

: Do you think older comics still contain a lot of enjoyment, or are you primarily concerned with recent and future comics?

My favorites are older comics. But with Perez on Avengers, it looks like good days still lie ahead. I'm always looking forward to the stuff I've ordered from Previews. (And if more of it actually arrives at my store --especially the oddball indy stuff by alternative creators -- I'll be able to talk about it more!)