There’s a popular line of thought which says that comic books are the province of little boys — the reading fodder of children too young, too dull, to appreciate the grown-up realm of true literature. I was talking with my father about this just the other day. Comic books, he tells me, are read by people who haven’t got the imagination for other literary forms; they rely on the pictures. I don’t mean you, of course, he says. I know you read real books.
But what does that really mean? What qualifies a piece of writing as “real”? What makes it less so? It’s true that as a young girl, I didn’t care for comics. I found my heroines in the pages of novels, imagining myself as Nancy Drew, Jo March, Emily Byrd Starr, Thursday Next. I didn’t yet realize that heroines like Susan Storm and Jean Grey awaited me. I was fully twenty-one before I read a Marvel comic for the first time.
It was Runaways, Brian K. Vaughn’s story of teenagers dealing with parents who are not only as evil as every sixteen year-old once envisioned, but a hundred times worse, supervillains bent on world destruction. Nix recommended it to me, but it wasn’t until I was idly browsing at a Barnes & Noble one weekend that I spotted the trade paperbacks on a shelf and recalled her enthusiasm for the series. I picked it up and read an issue — and another and another. I walked out with the first three volumes, all — maybe more than, in truth — I could afford on the budget of a college student.
The rest was history. I read whatever I could get my hands on from thereon out — X-Factor, Y: The Last Man, Fables, Young Avengers. There isn’t a person in the world who can convince me that Y‘s imagining of a world devastated by plague, only one man left standing, isn’t the stuff of true epic literature.
I can’t help wishing, too, that I’d had something like Young Avengers to read as a teenager. I found sufficient role models in the pages of my books, but it couldn’t have hurt, reading about someone like Kate Bishop, the new Hawkeye, a sixteen year-old girl with no powers whatsoever who nevertheless flings herself into battle with stunning ferocity. True, she’s had Olympic-grade physical training the likes of which I could only dream of, but here’s a heroine who tackles her troubles headlong, who has been the victim of a horrible attack and, uncowed, chooses to stand and fight. She’s as flawed — and utterly human — as anyone, but she doesn’t let it stop her.
And then there are her teammates, Billy and Teddy, whose relationship is, mercifully, just a relationship between two boys who love each other with all the warmth and passion of any teenagers. It’s not treated as any different from any other in the stories; if anything, theirs is the steadiest love story I’ve seen in recent media, whether it’s comics or books or TV. In a time when a storyline about lesbians might be handled on television with lascivious fanfare as an effort to draw in viewers during sweeps, a mere stunt, it’s all too rare to see homosexuality portrayed in the media in such a positive light, yet handled as the ordinary thing it ought to be. It’s an example a lot of teens out there need.
All those years, I imagined there was truth in what the world said of such works. Like those around me, I felt it was a world made for boys: men in tights clobbering each other page after page, women in skintight spandex playing to teenage fantasy, nothing for such as me. And while there may be some element of truth in that, I was terribly, terribly wrong, too.
In these pages are life and death, love and loss, joy and grief, fury and mercy — an illustrated exploration of what it means to be human. For those like my father who think these are stories for people who haven’t got the imagination to illustrate them with their own minds, I can say only that they are wrong. Maybe that’s true for some, but those people are missing out. While there’s narration and pictures, thoughts and dialogue, it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks — to make the connection between one panel and the next, to imagine the battle in motion and the ache of fallen colleagues — a process that makes reading a good comic as visceral and full an experience as any other literary effort.
As for the notion of the absence of heroines, I began reading Uncanny X-Men for the first time a little over a week ago, finding the massive volume collecting Giant Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #94 – 131 at the library. One of the great joys of this Marvel omnibus has been the inclusion of letter columns from the original prints of these issues. They’re filled with young women who, after the debut of Jean Grey’s transformation into Phoenix, wrote to thank the writers for finally giving them a true super-heroine on par with, if not greater than, the big boys — and to ask more, better, of them. “I want a superheroine,” writes one, “of limitless power.” What’s truly remarkable about Jean in these early issues — I can’t speak yet for anything beyond — however, isn’t her god-like scope of abilities. It’s the choices she makes, the sacrifice — not the mutant powers, but the woman behind them.
The stories have their flaws. I can’t say they don’t. The narrative in these old comics is cheesy (and repetitive, at least for those reading them in a row rather than month to month — how many times can something be said to corruscate or be eldritch?), the use of thought bubbles to fill in too many blanks is just the kind of thing that underlines the old arguments about a want of imagination, and I don’t know who thought that a filler issue like #138 was at all worthwhile — a retrospective of the entire history of the X-Men while the woman you love is buried, Scott Summers? Seriously? But as I dove in for the sake of a little light melodrama, maybe something to laugh at, I found myself seeing past the flaws and the endless battles to the heart of it, driven onward by a love for a cast of characters who, though familiar to me in name, started out as strangers to myself and each other and became family.
So yes, that comes part and parcel with panel after panel of fights. It’s not always the drama of the human story — sometimes it’s just a skirmish, a little escape, and what’s so wrong about that? But at their best, comics are more than a way to hide from the world for a few glossy pages. Fantastic Four speaks to the struggle to get by in the public eye and the things family will do to and for each other. Runaways is about the oft-ignored, all too difficult difference between getting older and growing up. Uncanny X-Men tells the story of a group of people learning to be a team, making hard choices that, while exacerbated by their mutant status, are always firmly based in the truth of their humanity. At their best, comics show us ourselves. What could be more literary, more real, than that?