Saturday, April 15, 2017

My Favourite Book, Part One

Over the years I've read blog posts and listened to interviews where famous people talk about their favourite books. I am not famous, nor am I likely to be, but I do have a favourite book: New Mutants Annual #2. No, I'm not kidding, my favourite book is a comic book. It's not as weird as it might seem. Let me start a few years before it came out, though.

When I was a young boy I read. A lot. If I wasn't in class or eating dinner or watching TV, I was reading, and sometimes I'd read while doing those things as well. I read precociously, voraciously and indiscriminately, simply moving my way through the written page like a lawnmower through fresh grass. I read some classics, sure, but mostly because my dad gave them to me to read. I really didn't care what I read so long as it had characters and a story.

I like comic books well enough and had a small pile of Looney Tunes comics, one for each time I'd been home sick and my mom or dad had to swing by the Shopper's Drug Mart for Tylenol or cough syrup or what not. I actually had three copies of the same comic from a time when I cycled through the same illness three times in a month. I didn't complain about it, mostly because the illness meant that I couldn't concentrate on reading without running the risk of throwing up.

My heroes. No, seriously, these
guys make the Hardy Boys look
like poseurs. Not that it's hard.
I like these comics all right, and some of them were ever pretty good, but they had a sort of sameness to the stories, and they were always self-contained and rather short. It wasn't anything I couldn't get from The Three Investigators, and comics forced on me their interpretation of what things looked like.

The summer before grade two, we went on a daytrip to the beach at Port Dover. My sister and I skipped rocks, ran in the water, ate ice cream and dragged our parents along with us. I don't think either of us was aware of it at the time, but with the perspective of time, I know that they'd planned on a quiet day at the beach for themselves and a busy one for us. My mom brought three books, my dad brought one, and they bought new chairs for the occasion, very comfortable ones that went basically unused.

When we left, Carolyn and I were all tuned up on summer sun and sugar while mom and dad were ready to collapse into a coma. Driving out from the beach, they saw one final chance to drain our vital energies: Port Dover was having a citywide yard sale.

They gave us ten dollars each, told my sister to watch her brother, and let us loose. I was eight, Carolyn was twelve, we knew the area, which was a large, open park. But yes, my parents let their children out of their sight for about half an hour on a balmy Saturday afternoon. Clearly, they are terrible, wicked, sociopaths. That address, on with our story.

My sister and I parted company the moment it was feasible, of course, and I ended up in my natural habitat - surrounded by books. At first, it seemed like a magical place, with books stacked high on four or five large tables, but rummaging through them it became apparent that this was a very boring place. These were "grown-up" books. Mysteries, mostly, with some classics among them, side-by-side with Clive Cussler knockoffs and romance novels. Absolutely no sci-fi or fantasy, and nary a Choose Your Own Adventure, not even one I'd read before.

What I found beneath the tables was intriguing, though: plastic wrapped packages of comic books.

Cunningly wrapped so you could only see the back covers, each pack promised 10 comics for a dollar. They smelled vaguely like seaweed and I could tell about a third of them didn't even have covers. My dad already complained that my room smelled "a bit funny," and I'd heard from my friends that their parents said that "good Christians don't read comic books."

I counted out ten packages and handed the crisp ten dollar bill to the proprietor. Wordlessly, he added two more packages and gave me a box for it all.

When I got back to my parents, my arms tired from my burden, my dad just looked at me and smiled, and my mom didn't seem to notice at all. Even my sister, who had snagged a bedraggled stuffed animal and some equally battered plastic toy, looked approvingly at the sheer size of my find.

That green puffer-fish
still kinda creeps me
I had determined that I would not open any of my prizes in the car, even though my dad let me take two of them in the seat with me. To be honest, I just didn't want to share. Temptation overrode selfishness, though, and about two minutes after we hit the road, I opened one of them.

Disappointingly, this one was mostly Looney Tunes comics with some Disney thrown in, along with a Superman that looked dreadfully weird. One comic, though, showed a white-armoured figure with a strange, boxy helmet grappling with some strange undersea creatures. I presumed he was the character in the title: Rom. I was glad I got to that one first.

When I was a kid, my parents and I had an interesting relationship when it came to the things I read. They never banned a book, so far as I can remember, but they reserved the right to read them first and decide if I was ready for them. My father, a schoolteacher and a very well-read man, would take the lead on this and did something I've never heard of another parent doing before or since: When I got to the age where he thought I could now handle a book, he'd give it to me. He was usually right. Usually.

The problem is that there were, as now, pressures on parents to police their kid's lives, and nowhere moreso than in conservative Christian churches where, in the 1980s, it seemed like every kind of media every created could drive a child into the arms of Satan, and was designed to do so by a conspiracy of liberal devil worshipers. My parents were never greatly impacted by this "Satanic Panic," but I know they must've felt the temptation to fall in line and ban Transformers (the Decepticon symbol was occultic), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (created by animal worshipers) and The Care Bears (witchcraft!) wholesale, but they persisted in actually engaging with the things I liked.

They noticed the same thing that, of course, all us kids noticed - that while there were indeed dark and evil forces at work in these stories, the dark and evil forces were almost inevitably the bad guys, the people opposed by the good guys.

Anyhow, Rom was a weird comic, combining high-tech sci-fi gadgetry with weird aliens, hidden cults, mysticism and Shakespearean levels of ennui and existentialism. And while I only had that one issue of it at the time, I immediately fell in love and wanted more.

I fell asleep on the drive and woke up the next morning with a box with one hundred and twenty comics in it, one hundred and ten of them still a complete mystery. One bowl of cereal later, and a perfunctory nod at my parents, and I was down in the midst of them.

I started by dividing them up by structural integrity. Some were in excellent shape, others a bit battered, and some so beaten up they didn't even have all of their pages, so it seemed like a good idea.

Three packages in, I switched tactics. Rom, it seemed, was only the tip of the iceberg. There were some really weird comics in there, and it soon became clear that if my parents decided to judge these books by their covers, it probably would not be a favourable judgement.

What. The actual. Heck.
The division was simpler now: books anyone could read, books my parents could read and probably not like, but let me keep, and last books that my parents should never see, if possible. This last category included a comic that I decided that I didn't need to see either. I don't remember much about it other than that it was a different size than all of the others, and the content made me uncomfortable. I disposed of it personally, taking it to the garbage can in front of the local Becker's.

There were six or seven more Rom comics and fifty or sixty others.

The Defenders featured prominently, with about a dozen issues. In one, a group of baddies called the Headmen . . . well, look at that cover and tell me what happens in that one because I honestly never figured it out. There were some with Gargoyle, and three issues in a row where Damion Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, is trying to save a small town from the clutches of demonic forces.

Looks legit.
There was also an issue of The X-Men. I'd seen an older boy reading an X-Men comic on the bus and asked him about it. With the arrogance of a middle schooler, he told me it was "too sophisticated" for me. And here, now, was my very own X-Men comic, which took place . . . at a circus? The X-Men worked in a circus? It made a kind of sense at the time.

I would eventually figure out how to identify comics suitable as entry points into a series, but this was a skill that took some time to develop. I just read them all, cover to cover, again and again. To this day, I can recall many individual panels and successions of panels, complete with dialogue.

Longer story arcs were the order of the day, so I only caught glimpses of what was really going on, but that lead to something fascinating - because I couldn't understand the big picture, the little ones made a lot more sense. I might not understand why Thor and The Radioactive Man are especially displeased to meet up with one another in The Avengers, but I learned how to read the cues to determine that they have a history, whether through dialogue or the way the story's framed.

It was like learning a new language, but one I didn't know and had to learn without a teacher. It was marvelous.

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