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COMICS HISTORY: Coming Out of the Comics Closet, Part II: The Rise of Geek Cool

An autobiographical timeline of how comic books and adult readers outlived social stigma and became acceptable.

With the development of personal computers in the 1980s, industry leaders like Jobs, Woz, and Gates started to make being a nerd actually seem cool. But it took Frank Miller and a Goth Geek named Tim Burton and their interpretations of Batman to kick the closet door wide open, and make comic book readers begin to be considered mainstream.

Miller revitalized Batman and made him grimmer and grittier than he had ever been before. His 1986 four-issue miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight became a pop culture phenomenon, and would influence every creator’s vision of the character to come. Followed close behind in the same year by the success and notoriety of the 12-issue Watchmen series by Alan Moore, it seemed that, virtually overnight, comics became a lot cooler and much more adult-oriented…more like literature…and much less taboo reading material.

In 1989, Tim Burton brought his Gothic vision of the Batman to movie theaters. Gone was the bright-colored Camp Crusader we had last seen on tv, and now we had a return to a literal dark creature of the night, one who would actually able to strike terror into the hearts of criminals. To my great relief, the movie further changed the public’s perception of Batman (and hopefully comics in general) from kiddie fare to more serious drama, reaching many millions more than Miller’s epic ever could.

As comic shops began to pop up, closeted comic bookers like me found safer places to get our weekly fix. Comic shops were judgment-free zones, where everyone was like me, and checking out at the cash register was no longer accompanied by snickers and snarky side-glances that screamed, “Aren’t you too old for funnybooks, man?”

Unfortunately, what I had begun to see comic books becoming in the 1990s made the weekly New Comic Book Day less and less magical for me. Drastically rising prices, multiple gimmick covers, arbitrary restarts, and the art trend of “flash over substance” turned me off. I had enough of the ludicrous, paper-thin storylines where no character is really dead for long, and all the overly-fussy crosshatching and anatomy-be-damned stylized body types… so I quit reading comics for years. I told myself: “you may miss the few titles you love, but at least you won’t have to admit you still read comics anymore, right?” Plus, I knew I could always go buy back issues at a later date.

Having a very busy career as an advertising agency art director, and getting married severely cut back the spare time I had for comics. Explaining to my first wife why I needed to keep all those longboxes of comics wasn’t as hard as I thought, since she was a creative type herself, and understood the art and attraction of my hobby. After a few years, I visited my local comic shop again, and was pleasantly surprised to see that comics were no longer as ludicrous or cross-hatchy as I remembered. While I didn’t feel like I had missed much, I was happy to be a member of the secret club again.

The debut of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1993, brought a non-campy (for the most part) live-action version of Superman back to tv. The sexy, love triangle storyline was a hit, and attracted a lot of women viewers. Progress. The first adult-oriented, comic-based show in tv history made another big step toward comic book legitimacy and respectability.

Working as a designer in an ad agency and being a comic book fan meshed really well creatively and socially. I met other fans among coworkers and in the illustrators I would commission, and even got to collaborate with a local comic publisher to produce a couple of issues of a Captain Nauticus comic to promote a local maritime center to kids. I scratched my itch to be a comic book creator by helping to develop the characters, punch up dialogue, draw sound effects, and designing the comic title logo. It was very comforting to be around kindred spirits, and I felt even more open about my lifelong hobby.

But it wasn’t until the success of the X-Men movies starting in 2000 that I really started to feel completely comfortable with public perception about the comic book industry, thanks to comics’ growing influence over the box office. Everyone thought the X-Men were cool, even those who had never read a comic book before in their life. Friends and coworkers would start asking me questions about Who’s Who and what their powers were.

The debut of Smallville in 2001 brought the teenage version of Superman legend back to tv (it’s best to forget the very campy attempts at a Superboy series from 1988 to 1992). Thankfully, Smallville played as a straight drama, full of the teenage angst that would become a CW staple. I had many non-comic book-loving friends and coworkers that were fans, thanks no doubt to hunky star Tom Welling. Smallville ran for a very respectable 10 seasons, and laid the groundwork for an explosion of superhero television series to closely follow, starting with Arrow in 2012.

With the mega-success of Iron Man in 2009, the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe flung the closet door WIDE OPEN, and soon, multiple comic book movies were being released each year. A Golden Age of comic book-based entertainment was in full swing.

Was this really happening?

Were comic book geeks finally cool and inheriting the earth?

“Yes!” I said, as I slammed the closet door behind me and stepped proudly into the sun.

Fast-forward to the present, where I am now happily married to my high school sweetheart and geek goddess wife, Jen, who fully embraces my comic book past and present. My adorably geeky teenage daughter Maddie loves comics and superhero movies. I post comic book-based news and comments on Facebook with no hesitation, and friends of all types Like and Love them.

Comic book geeks are finally cool…and even better, not considered geeks anymore at all.

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