Editorial: All I Ever Needed to Know, I Learned From Comic Books
by R.J. Carter
Published: September 18, 2002
I sat down the other day and began the process of sorting and rummaging through the comics I've amassed over my many years. It's a task I always take great pleasure in, as I invariably have to open one up every five minutes or so and once again read a favorite story. But this time, as I looked around at the boxes of four-color funny books, I began to reflect on myself as a person.
I'm not an idiot. I know what people think of someone over twelve years old who still reads comic books. I've endured many of those labels over the years:
Slow. I've a Masters Degree in Computer Science, and at last testing my IQ was measured at around 150.
Different. The definition of "normal" is still up for debate.
Geek. I treat this one is my personal badge of honor.
That one was unexpected. That one hurt. But how else should a "normal" person classify a man in his thirties who still reads comics and frequents the toy aisles at department stores? He's obviously a predator!
These thoughts and others swirled through my head, as I wondered exactly what kind of person I really was, and whether it was worth justifying my hobby any longer.
Was I somehow addled? Did I really stick out from society that badly?
Succinctly: Was there something wrong with me?
So I set out to find, by way of writing this article, a clearer picture of myself. (Perhaps you might even see a bit of yourself in here.)
I learned to read from comics, harvested from my local barber shop, at age four--before kindergarten--and haven't stopped yet (reading them, that is--my barber doesn't have to lock them away any longer). Certainly, they must have had some impact in shaping my life other than just advancing my reading skills.
True story: In the first grade, fully capable of reading, I gazed about as my teacher read aloud from a big poster board about plants. Noticing my inattention, she asked--God bless her--if I would like to read aloud to the class. Too young to recognize sarcasm and too eager for her to get on to the next page (I had already read ahead of her), I complied, breezing through words like "chlorophyll" and "photosynthesis." I could also, had she asked, explained to her what those words meant--The Flash had already fought the Floronic Man, you see, and Batman had taken down Poison Ivy's plant monsters just last month.
I was sent home with a note to my parents, and promoted the next day into the second grade reading class.
Wonderful! I had just earned my way into spending even more time with the older jerks who beat me up at recess.
To be sure, there was the modicum of science and history to be gleaned from the comics. Certainly, it was stretched by the medium--I seriously doubted Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent mystery men to Nazi Germany, or that gamma radiation would turn one into a rampaging monster. Nevertheless, as early as six years old, I at least knew that FDR was President during World War II (whenever that was), knew that there were such things as radioactive materials (and that they usually came from bombs). I had the teensiest, tiniest grasp on the quantum fact that antimatter exploded when it contacted positive matter (so I was always careful not to touch any), and that the Revolutionary War involved people named George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and, quite possibly, a frontiersman named Tomahawk.
However, with 30+ years of hindsight, I can see there were lessons learned that were too large to be seen with a child's eyes, but absorbed nonetheless.
From Spider-Man, I learned that with "great power comes great responsibility." It didn't take a genius to figure out we all had some responsibilities because we all had some power. Spidey just set the example.
Superman taught me that there was right, and there was wrong, and that the distinction was not difficult to make. He didn't use those exact words until Kingdom Come, but without knowing it, my younger self, having not yet read L'Morte D'Artur, had learned chivalry--and believed in it.
I learned that doing the right thing required bravery--a necessary commodity to stay straight in junior high while every other guy your age was experimenting with drugs. I'd already seen Speedy take his fall in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85. Moreover, I knew that even possessing drugs was criminal--and criminals were a superstitious, cowardly lot. Batman taught me to be better than that--braver than that.
The X-Men came later in my life, with lessons I wish I had learned earlier. They exposed my prejudices against people with different skins, different lifestyles, and horrible afflictions. They also showed me how to conquer those same prejudices.
The Justice League taught me anything was possible if we all worked together. The Teen Titans showed me that rule worked even if you were a kid. The Legion of Super Heroes gave me an optimistic anticipation for the future.
From Jonah Hex, I learned outside appearances weren't important; from the Unknown Soldier, I learned one man could make a difference; from Sgt Rock I learned life was never "easy." They all taught me to look for heroes in unexpected and mundane places, and never to expect to find them wearing capes and spandex.
The eighties defined my college years, and my knowledge of how the world worked still came best from comics. I had heard about apartheid continually in the news, but it wasn't until I read Teen Titans Spotlight that I understood exactly what it was. Sally Struthers never made an impact on me with her commercials about starving children, but Heroes For Hunger and Heroes For Hope inspired me to actually send assistance.
The early 90's ushered in the Dark Age, and brought with it a plethora of books showcasing violence and sexism as the new norm. The "heroes" toted cannons on their shoulders or were the spawn of demons. Massive property damage was always their calling card. And they killed--violently, bloodily and with an appetite. (The characters improved with age, but at the time they blemished the already acne-pocked image of the comic book fan.) But the core comics I still read--the older, established, naive superheroes, with their simplistic ideals and morals--remained the same. Over time, the industry had matured.
And so had I.
Along the way, I learned there was even more I didn't know. Neil Gaiman's Sandman, minus the fiction, highlighted some fantastically wild--yet real--moments of our history. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore reintroduced me to Victorian literature, and compelled me to re-read many of the classics.
As I continue reading today, I reinforce the lessons learned in youth.
Responsibility. Justice. Right and wrong. Teamwork. Optimism. Brotherhood.
Not bad qualities to pick up in life, when you think about it, even if they were lessons learned from funny books.
So, yes, because I enjoy comic books, I guess I do stick out from the crowd a bit.
Can you imagine what the world would be like if everybody did?