A Late-Comer To Comics

Books Features

I was a late-comer to comic books. Aside from a collection of Asterix and Obelisk stories that my parents brought home from our family’s time in Europe, I gave no thought to the mostly superhero stories that took up half the space in my local baseball-card shop. While other kids were spending their allowance on comics, I was buying packs of Donruss and Topps. Looking back, I can’t believe I was essentially choosing math over literature.

From the stats on the back of each card to the value assigned by my trusty Beckett’s guide, the baseball cards were an endless source of numbers. A short, skinny kid who was mostly relegated to right field, I nonetheless loved baseball, but the cards weren’t even that connected to the game in my mind. It was about the collecting—that rush of opening a new pack, hoping for a Dwight Gooden rookie card that meant that I was immediately richer than five seconds earlier. It was about the satisfaction of completing a set. The joys of getting a good deal as I traded duplicates with friends. The cards themselves brought little joy—it was more the possession of them.

Looking back, I wish I’d spent those few dollars each week on stories instead. I feel like if I’d bothered to flip through the pages of some of those comic books, I’d have been richer for it. Don’t get me wrong—I read a fair amount as a kid. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov (yes, short, skinny and nerdy). But I was not the voracious reader that my nine-year-old son is.

My love for fantasy fiction graduated to spy novels in high school and then Southern lit in college. Since then, my tastes have varied to include lots of John Irving, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, G.K. Chesterton, William Kennedy and Shusaku Endo. And lately, lots of post-apocalyptic fiction. I’d read a couple of graphic novels, but I kind of figured I had graduated past comic books.

In the end, it took a pair of TV shows to get me hooked. A few years ago, I went back and watched everything Joss Whedon had ever created—Firefly, Doll House, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By the time I finished that final episode of Angel, the natural place to go was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8. I was at my first Comic-Con: San Diego last year, and had to come home with something.

I enjoyed it more than I’d guessed. I downloaded X-Comics on my iPad and started buying some Angel comics as well. And since I’d been reviewing The Walking Dead on AMC, I figured I ought to at least catch up on the original comics. I’m now 100 issues in.

But there have been two series that have made me truly fall in love with the medium. The first won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read Neil Gaiman’s beautiful Sandman comics. Gaiman is a gifted storyteller, and the comic-book format provided the perfect way for his singular imagination to come to life. Stretching dimensions and imagining minions of the dream world that were as varied as our dreams was as easy as handing gifted illustrators his wildest ideas. While the central character of the series was cold and distant, we still came to cherish the Master of Stories, but it was the ordinary people coping in an extraordinary world that have gripped comics readers for two dozen years since those first issues. Dream would inspire a young playwright, William Shakespeare, to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream and perform it for the Queen of Faerie and the “real” puck, who’s even more mischievous and malevolent than his namesake character. He’d see our nightmares escape from the dream world and have our happiest dream geography morphed into a portly man who comes to the aid of a damsel in distress—though most of the women in this world can hold their own, thank you very much. The series allowed Gaiman to explore all facets of humanity through the tales of the Endless—those facets incarnate, from Delirium to Desire to Death.

The other series that has me completely smitten with the form is much newer: Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga, gorgeously illustrated by Fiona Staples. The space opera is a love story, but it’s anything but sappy, beginning with the screams of childbirth as soldiers pursue a pair of unlikely lovers who hail from two warring species. The war stretches to every corner of their galaxy, a feud that has laid waste to countless cultures. It’s the first time I’ve experienced the giddy excitement of comics in their periodical form—when is the next issue coming?!? I have to know what happened to Lying Cat. It’s funny, gripping and wild-assedly imaginative. I’m thrilled that it’s our first-ever comics-related Paste cover. And I’m thrilled to have our comic-books editor Sean Edgar, who’s led the charge on all of our comics coverage the last couple of years, write it.

Recently, I was walking my dog on a Saturday morning when I saw my neighbor was having a garage sale. There was a big box of comic books from the 1990s—more than 200 issues of X-Men and Spiderman, Guardians of the Galaxy and Justice League. I bought the whole box “for my son.” Recently, I even finished writing a script for the first issue of a comic idea I dreamed up. Who knows if it’ll ever see the light of day, but it’s been a fun experiment. I may be coming to the comics game late, but I’m making up for 40 years of lost time. Anybody want to trade for my old baseball cards?

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