I don’t remember the first comic book I ever cracked or how old I was when my dad bought it for me. I don’t remember a time before comic books, actually. What I remember, instead, is fluid, an action I did over and over, a looped gif of a memory:
We are at Vernon’s Drugs on Key Biscayne and I am slowly turning the thinly stocked, wire comic rack. They never have the book that comes directly after the one we bought last. They rarely even stock the same series week to week. It is a game of pot luck, and though I make my decision carefully so as not to waste the chance, though I search each and every cover for some connection to the last story I became invested in or, barring that, a character I love, I know the truth is that there is no losing this game. No matter which one I pick up, it will be good.
They are all good to me.
The arguments that make up my adult fandom– Marvel vs DC vs Image vs God-Knows-What, Spiderman vs X-Men, whose costume is best, whose power, what gender means to a superhero, is it too dark? Not dark enough? How about the art? The story? The plot?– these arguments that ARE fandom, they do not yet exist at Vernon’s. I read whatever Vernon’s will stock. I read whatever my dad will buy. I read these comic books over and over and over.
I read Donald Duck and Spider Man and X-Men and Wonder Woman and Squadron Supreme. I read Batman and Superman. At the local Publix, my mom buys me Archie and Josie and The Pussycats. At flea markets, I pick up comics with no covers, no names.
It doesn’t matter. They are all good.
I was a talkative kid, I talked to EVERYONE, so I don’t remember being a lonely kid, but I wasn’t great with other kids. I had some friends, but not a lot. I didn’t have the sort of neighborhood crew the kids in movies have. I didn’t have the sort of pack my friends today often reminisce about. But I had adventures.
I had books. For as long as I can remember I read. Before I was great at it, my mom did it for me. Every night, she read to me. I loved all books, but my favorite were the comic books.
I didn’t collect them, even when I was older and said I collected them, even when I kept them in their plastic bags, the stiff cardboard protecting their shape, I was never the sort of collector we call a collector, because my comic books, even when I started to be careful, never stayed in mint condition. I read them. I poured over them. I wanted to see everything. I wanted to know everything. I searched each panel, I examined each word. I touched everything, as if the pages held braille.
My curiosity was not careful. At best, the invisible oils from my fingers marred the pages, at worst, the crumbs from my snacks smeared across them.
But I was not a collector. I was a reader.
I am a reader.
The people who study such things can tell you all about the many cognitive benefits of reading comic books (here is one simplified list). I can tell you the many gifts they gave me. Every time I turned the spinning rack at Vernon’s with my dad or searched the magazine aisle at Publix with my mom, I learned to be open to new experiences. As I finished one serialized book mid-story and had to wait for the next to come out, I learned patience. I learned to infer what I missed and research what was no longer available. I learned how to decode both images and language, to recognize symbols and create meaning.
But the best gift was the unabashed love and curiosity and wonder that comic books inspired in me, the way every story was somehow a good story.
My parents did that. God knows how many hours of their lives they wasted waiting for me to pick one out or to put one down and come to dinner. How much money they spent. How incredibly boring my obsession must have been for them. But just like I don’t remember a time before comic books, I don’t remember any of them, not my parents or my step-parents, complaining.
They never made fun. They never belittled. They never suggested I grow up and find something better to do with my time. The story of my love affair with comic books is also the story of my parents’ love for me. And for that I’m lucky.