A friend once took me to an authentic Chinese restaurant. The menu was in Chinese, which I don’t read, but I browsed it anyway because that’s what proper diners do.
Ultimately, I had to trust my friend’s discretion and eat what he ordered. It was delicious. But I found the whole experience disorienting, like stepping out of an airport into a city you’ve never visited, clueless to which way is north.
That’s how I feel when I read comic books—which I almost never do. I didn’t grow up reading them, so the navigation system is foreign; I don’t know where to look first (pictures? word balloons?) or where to look second (left-to-right? top-to-bottom?). And so many of them have repugnant content: ghastly violence toward painfully proportioned women and, not to be accused of sexism, ghastly violence at the hands of painfully proportioned women.
A literary snob, I always figured comic books were for people who had trouble with, you know, actual reading.
But then I married a comic-book geek. My husband grew up with his nose buried in Spider-Man comics and now makes his living as a graphic designer in the comic-book biz. This weekend, he’s dragging me once again to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con, the nation’s biggest celebration of pop-culture fringe. The convention’s 100,000-plus visitors are a motley jumble of Star Trek, Twilight, and Bettie Page fanatics, but what binds them all together is comic books. Four-color, saddle-stitched, your-grandpa-used-to-read-’em comic books. Comics about superheroes, bad guys and, lately, nerd girls.
The female-to-fella ratio at Comic-Con is terribly imbalanced, and single guys who frequent the fest have a saying: The odds are good, even if the goods are odd. But my friend Lara Milton insists there are lots of lady fans.
“For me,” she says, “it’s about escapism, good storytelling, great visuals, and the wonder of watching other people’s imaginations unfold.”
Like my Chinese dinner, I can only trust my friends’ discretion as to what’s worth reading. And I’ve lurched my way through a few comics over the years; Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust tale Maus and Craig Thompson’s young-love story Blankets were profoundly moving. But rarely do I get the ZAP! POW! BAM! reaction that the genre’s diehards claim.
“Some of us learned life lessons from comics,” says fan Kyle Rokes, 37, “important ones, like ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ That, and how to neutralize an alien bombardment by reversing the polarity on some wacky doohickey.”
Barry Miller, creator of the comic Billy Banes: Sidekick for Hire, says The X-Men got him thinking about tolerance. “Other heroes, like Batman,” he says, “are quite flawed but still manage to do the right thing when faced with moral dilemmas. Comics often teach us that being ‘heroic’ means much more than having a super power.”
My husband swears the characters are relatable—even those with X-ray vision. “I really identified with the idea of this outsider who has a secret life where he’s powerful and heroic and beloved,” he says. “I think a lot of comic-book fans feel like outcasts, weirdos. Comic books are a place where you can feel vicariously like a hero.”
For others, the appeal is more about the medium than the message. “They’re easy to digest,” says former comic-book colorist Marc Siry. “For young or distracted minds, the pictures are a shortcut to comprehension.”
Comics fan Colton Ingraham, 11, argues that the images don’t just hasten the entertainment; they enhance it. “They add emotion based on the way the picture is drawn,” he says. “They leave you with a really lasting image.”
He has a point. If only there had been pictures on the Chinese menu.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Keep Your Skirt On.