If you’re anything like me (congratulations on your awesome humility, you brilliant stud) you long for the day when more of your friends and/or family and/or the supermarket cashier and/or anyone else outside your consciousness can share in your passion for comics. Especially around this gift-giving time of year, there seems to be a bevy of comic fans soliciting recommendations for the perfect book to draw-in a comic book novice. As if written on holy parchment, the exalted and customary titles are delivered via Gregorian chant: Fables, Y: The Last Man, Sandman, Persepolis, Runaways, The Walking Dead, The Dark Knight Returns, Saga, Strangers in Paradise, Bone. Firstly, Brian K. Vaughn absolutely owns this list and deservedly so. Secondly, comic-fans, we’re starting to come off as somewhere between desperately begging for a date and aggressively pushing drugs. Sometimes we, myself included, need to accept that comics aren’t going to appeal to everyone and we wind up looking less like the advocate we consider ourselves to be and more like Gil from The Simpsons trying to close a deal.
This is one of comicdom’s favorite topics and it’s completely understandable and hell, admirable. While some enjoy having staked out their little corner of geekiness to self-identify, unwilling to accept outsiders into their world like some sort of comic book hipster, the vast majority of comic lovers are eager to welcome the uninitiated into their hobby. The rationale behind this is likely twofold; first, and by no means unique to comic books, it’s exciting to be able to have a common interest with others because duh, and second, slightly more applicable to comics than other hobbies, there is a tremendous sense of validation.
A not so long, long time ago in a galaxy painfully close, being a comic book fan was an ostracizing activity that painted a target for ridicule on your forehead. This wasn’t everyone’s experience, obviously, but I suspect it holds varying degrees of truth to a large segment of comic fans. Which in turn, fuels our desire as adults to prove to others that our interests were not misplaced and that yes, it was in fact YOU who were mistaken about comics because look at how funny Yorick is and Morpheus is as tragic a figure as anything Shakespeare ever wrote, in fact Shakespeare is a character in it and hey, you really should read Maus and if you like that, then you’ll totally like wait, where are you going? It plays out like some sort of odd revenge-fantasy, as if convincing one solitary soul that comic books are about more than tights and capes will somehow exorcise past derision. See that, Shawn, this smart, super-cool person likes comics now so you were totally wrong when you were being a dick about Storm in the 5th grade. Now, look, I’m not saying that this is what everyone is doing when they try to bring non-comic readers into the fold, by no means. I think it primarily is about creating a shared experience, with just a tinge of that search for validation included therein. And sometimes it works out great and other times, the well-meaning motivations lead you to looking like an idiot. I know from experience.
A few years back a college friend of mine was visiting. He had been writing professionally about the entertainment industry for some well-regarded publications for some time and I respected the hell out of his talent and insight. Now, he wasn’t the type that would have been the schoolyard bully, mocking me for liking comics as a kid, far far from it. But he was someone whose opinion mattered a great deal to me and who I already had a decent amount in common with. Except comics. It was my mission, in between catching-up over drinks and showing him around town, to lure him into the world of comics as though Chris Hansen were about to ask me to take a seat right over there. I would leave Ex Machina casually laying about like a kid leaving the toy section of the Sears catalogue strategically open next to the coffee maker. Sprinkling bits of information into conversations as subtly as the idiomatic bull in a china shop like “Yes, I also enjoyed that movie about space exploration. In fact I was reading about space just the other day, in a comic actually, and did you know that radiation is rampant up there. Yeah, the book gets into pretty deep detail about it.” The thing that makes me cringe the most when I think back about it was one afternoon when he was working on his computer at the kitchen table and I decided to just pick up a comic to read, one that I had mentioned a few days earlier. Except it’s not like I just picked up any old innocuous trade on a whim. No, my brilliant-self decided that the Absolute Edition Sandman would get the trick done. It’s eye catching, right? That’s what I was going for, wasn’t I? Who could see that and possibly resist immediately wanting to know everything about comic books the second that tome was opened and a bright light comes pouring out of its pages towards the heavens and a choir of angels ring out signaling that all truth and happiness can be found within. No siree bob, lugging a giant 9” x 15.5” behemoth around, letting it thud on the table and playing it off like “What? Oh, this old thing?” didn’t make me look like a desperate fool at all. Not one bit. Sigh. Needless to say, his visit concluded without the two of us merrily making runs to the comic shop.
Comic book properties in film, television and games have put more attention on the source material, sure, but the attention isn’t translating into legions of new comic readers. What the highly successful superhero films have done more than anything is created fans of superhero films, not new superhero comic fans. There might be some who have been curious, only to arrive at a local shop and not been put off by the environment and not been bewildered by a dozen or so books all titled Avengers and not dumbfounded by the $3.99 price tag for twenty pages and not been disappointed to have to return again in a month to get another small portion of a story and… you get the idea. It’s a hard thing to get into, is what I’m saying and we need to respect that. If non-comic readers haven’t been interested in comics prior to a popular film starring beautiful people was released, we need to remember that the reasons for that choice may be more than just simple ignorance on their part. Comics should be welcoming and accessible for everyone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be for everyone. So be mindful to reign yourself in a little this holiday season and respect that the comic you just know would be the perfect gateway drug for someone can’t be forced on them. Maybe they’ll read it and it simply won’t click or maybe they’ll intend to read it and it’ll get lost in a shuffle only to be discovered years later under a mountain of detritus with an “oooh, yeah, forgot about this” and shrug. Be thoughtful and restrained lest you start sounding like ol’ Gil, aw jeez. I’ll tell you this much though, three years after my friend visited me, I traveled to see him on New Years and amongst his cluttered belongings, atop his pristine bookshelf was a well presented, but definitely read, Building Stories by Chris Ware. So you know what, Shawn? Suck it. *mic drop*