How Much About Comics Can You Learn in a Year?

Captions are text that appear below the image and describe its contents. CC Tom

So how much can you learn in a year?

I’ve always been into comics. (Always meaning for 25+ years.) But there are two big moments that stand out, moments when comics and comic book characters took a hold of me and didn’t let go.

The first was in 1989. I was 11 years old. Uncanny X-Men #248 was on stands in neighborhood comic shops everywhere. (The direct sales business meant that they weren’t on many newsstands—although how many newsstands were still around in ’89, I couldn’t tell ya.) A friend dragged me into Comics Etc. (which was a chain?) in the King of Prussia mall, because he was buying something. Maybe the same comic. I don’t remember why I picked it up but I remember the pages just inside where I watched as a tough-looking dude with swords in his hands getting shot to death by a bunch of gnarly-looking cyborgs. The dude was really just a robot dude, and this was just practice for when the cyborgs would later take on the real non-robot dude. It was rad in exactly the way an 11-year-old kid who watches a lot of moves and lives in the suburbs wants something to be rad in 1989.

The mix of highly kinetic action (the issue was penciled by Jim Lee, part of his fabled run on the X-books) and utter confusion (I had no idea who Wolverine was, and I still only sort of know who the Reavers—the cyborgs!—are), well, that mixture was intoxicating. That single issue was so good that it kept me buying comics until I went to college.

Do they hold up? The opening pages of UNCANNY X-MEN #248.

 

The second moment was in 2014. My daughter was born, and she was seriously, remonstratively colic-y. My wife and I would eat dinner together at 7 pm, then my wife would sleep until 2 am, and then we would trade off and I would sleep until 6 am. But after a full day of work and a few hours tending to my wife and daughter, staying awake on that 7 to 2 stint was tough. The only thing that helped was watching movies on mute. And after about a week I figured out that the only things that really helped were superhero movies on mute.

Superhero movies aren’t comics, obviously (obviousness alert!), and their relationship to the medium of comic books is more complicated than it seems, in my humble opinion (internet acronym alert!). But watching those movies woke something up in me that wanted to see what was happening in comics now and in the years since I read them regularly. And because I’m almost 40 now and a professional writer (unimpressive brag alert!), I was also curious about what the life of comics creators was like and whether it was possible to actually write some ideas down and see if they were any good.

But more than fame or fortune, what I was interested in most fundamentally, most elementally, was in what paying closer attention to comics could teach me. What expressive possibilities were waiting in the world around me to be realized? What experiences that I had gone through could be most powerfully (and most quickly?) realized in sequential art form—my storytelling biography? My work as a writer and editor? My life as a dad? Something else?

As a writer and part-time (fun-time!) teacher of writing, I operate under the assumption that more people should spend more time writing. As in, universally. The quality of everyone’s life, job, and thoughts would improve with more time being careful about words. (Now, quick, check this post for typos!) As somebody who also cares a lot about storytelling, I also operate under the assumption that more people should spend time thinking about how to tell stories—and then telling them.

But if I believe all that, then as a comics reader, shouldn’t I spend more time thinking deeply about comics and see what’s up there? Shouldn’t I spend some time making comics—writing scripts, drawing panels–so I can understand part of the experience of the artists and writers that I’ve admired over the years? I don’t know, without any of this being a professional commitment, that I can really do this forever. But I’d like to give it a year. I’d like to spend a year paying as much attention to comics as I can, making as many comics as I can, and see what I can learn. Can I learn a lot in a year? Am I just literally/not literally scratching the surface?

How about we find out together.