Monday, November 26, 2012

The Comic That Changed Your Life

Editor's note: Today, we are excited to run the first of three articles by Megan Kurashige in which she describes her new-found love of comics and interviews others about the comics that made them fall in love.  Enjoy! 

I recently had the pleasantly unsettling experience of having something transform right in front of me. You know the feeling: you have a relationship with something that you think you understand, that you have at some point arranged into your personal constellation of likes, hatreds, indifferences, and then an anvil drops--BANG!--right out of the blue. When the cartoon birds (yellow, generally, and accompanied by stars) have cleared, you realize that you were mistaken in your complacency, that you have just gotten on a thrill ride without noticing.

As a friend of mine puts it, there's nothing like those few moments between indifference and the realization that something is your favorite.

When I was a kid, I read the Sunday comics section of our newspaper faithfully and completely. The only comics I remember actually liking are Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur, and Charles Schulz's inescapable Peanuts. Everything else I read with deep resentment because, in my stubborn childhood mind, starting to read something was akin to promising to read every part of it and I was honor-bound to read every single panel. I developed an intense hatred toward Cathy and Doonesbury and a knee-jerk revulsion toward the triangular humans that populated The Far Side. But, I slogged on, dosing up on pleasure and pain every Sunday.

I think this is why I was never really a comics person. I tried. I flirted with Tintin, at first because my best friend read them and later because my mom thought they might help me with my French. I read Sandman in high school and picked at a few Alan Moore titles. I had fun, I mostly enjoyed them, but I wasn't converted. I approached comics with prescriptions: oh, Megan, you really should read Maus. It's a cultural touchstone, a masterpiece. Everyone says so.

Prescriptions do not engender love, though they're quite good at making you feel guilty for not finding it.
A couple of months ago, I read The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes for the first time. I had previously avoided Clowes because so many people had told me I should be reading him that I was afraid to disappoint with a lack of appreciation. But, holy smokes! Here was something that blew the top of my head right off, sent my fossilized biases spinning. The grace and wicked efficiency with which Clowes delivers a story, exploiting the comic form with such sweetly devastating skill, is intoxicating. If you are interested in storytelling of any sort, I will join the legions and say that you must read Clowes. The Death Ray ignited an enormous admiration for Clowes' artistic skill in my heart and made me viciously hungry for more comics.

Off to the comic bookstore I went, all dewy-eyed and aflutter with enthusiasm. There's very little that I find as bewitching as enthusiasm, either in myself or other people, and when it's freshly burning, I want to bury myself in it and talk to people who know more than I do so I can throw on matches, kindling, gasoline. I decided I would ask a question, something provocative enough to flush out conversation. Something like, what is the comic that changed your life? Slightly ridiculous, maybe, but the answers I got were fascinating, little stories about tectonic shifts in people's brains.

Brian Hibbs, the owner of Comix Experience, San Francisco's oldest comic bookstore with continuous ownership and location, told me about the first comic he can clearly remember. "It was an issue of Justice League of America, a Christmas story, and the weirdest thing I had ever read. The back of the book had a whole bunch of reprints from the 1940s and here were these characters that had the same names as the characters I knew, but they all had different costumes, and I didn't really understand what was going on, but they clearly looked old and had a long history… and that excited me. Here was a whole world that was really large, as opposed to just a story. I demanded that my mom take me into Manhattan, to an actual comic bookstore, and she took me to this place called The Bat Cave. It was underneath another storefront and it had, I swear to God, stalactites and stalagmites in it, around the racks. But, the coolest thing ever was to see a store that sold nothing but comic books." And that, he thinks, is the very first thing that set him on the road to owning a comic bookstore himself, to being "one of the rare people who gets to wake up every day and be extraordinarily thankful that I get to go to work."

Jeff Lester, who grew up in Humboldt County and read whatever made its way into the supermarket racks ("a lot of superhero stuff and Archie"), moved to San Francisco to start college ("way, way back when") where he stumbled across a book called Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers. "Here were these two guys down in Oxnard who were writing about punk rock and growing up Latino, but they also had a little bit of robots and spaceships and monsters in there, so… I just realized you could do anything. It was an amazing book. I was just thinking about that issue the other day and about how perfect it was."

Stay tuned for more...

By Megan Kurashige