...some comics-related pop culture/social-anthropology in an autobiographical setting.
Before comic books began their current rule of the pop culture universe, reading them past your childhood years used to be considered a social stigma. Reprinted here, is a two-part article I originally wrote in February 2019 for the now-defunct The Comic Regime.
Coming Out of the Comics Closet
Part I: The Stigma of Comics
“You still read comic books?”
“Comics are for kids!”
“You’re such a nerd!”
Comic book readers and collectors have all heard words like these spoken to them, along with shocking looks of disapproval and disappointment. Words spoken by people they don’t know, but much more hurtful by people they know and love, when they discovered an adult that still reads or collect comic books.
Thankfully, within the lifetime of most people reading this, reading comic books into adulthood has become an acceptable part of mainstream society. Comic book-inspired content is now everywhere in pop culture. Finally, gloriously, comic book lovers are no longer mocked by those who once thought they were nerds, geeks, or losers...and have even become considered cool.
But before the rise of this shade of Geek Cool, reading comics beyond your childhood years was kept as a close secret; one you didn’t dare share with other adults. Doing so usually led to ridicule and discouragement, and being labelled as childish, uncool, or unintelligent.
As the above photo will tell you, I have loved superheroes since even before I could read, and I am grateful I had parents who in their youth both liked comic books (he was a Captain Marvel fan, she liked creepy EC Comics). They have never given me any grief about my lifelong love for them, other than once or twice convincing me to sell a small stack in a garage sale. Sob. My father bought my first comics when I was briefly in the hospital at age 7. The one I remember vividly was Action #363, with a great, creepy illustration of a leperous Superman by Neal Adams on the cover. Superman and Adams are still my favorites.
As a pre-teen, I enjoyed lending my comics to friends, and reading my next door neighbors' closetful of Archie-verse Comics. But once I reached my teens, I began to hear disapproval from some family members and girl friends about how silly it was that some boys still read comic books. I knew right then I had to keep it to myself if I was going to be socially acceptable or get dates in the future.
In my teens, the few neighborhood comic-friendly buddies I found each made me promise to keep our socially-unacceptable habit a secret from our “normal” friends, and especially from our girlfriends (yes, we had girlfriends!). One even kept it a secret from his parents.
Living proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover: a neighbor around the block from me surprisingly turned out to be a comic book fan. He was in high school, about five years older, had long hair, leather bracelets with metal studs, combat boots, and every day he wore the same tattered, sleeveless jeans vest covered in heavy metal patches. He did not have any time or patience for the younger kids in the neighborhood. He was too busy trying to project “cool loner vibes.” So, not in a million years, would I have expected him to invite me to his room to share his stash… not the dope I was half-expecting, but stack after stack of Marvel Comics. The only reason he considered showing them to me, or even allowing me in his presence, was because his younger brother had told him I was a comic book fan. There I was, Clean-Cut Christian Middle School Kid, hanging out with Mr. Tough Guy Metal Head High Schooler, bonding over our love of comic books, yet being sworn never to reveal his secret. Otherwise, his tough street cred (and tough street girlfriend) would have been history.
I managed to keep my “comic book secret” throughout high school, never sharing the fact that every week I still visited the spinner racks at the 7-11 that was conveniently located across the street from my house, or at nearby pharmacies to find the different titles each store carried. I did reveal my secret to one high school teacher, after she complimented me on my storytelling skills, and asked me what books I read to get such a high vocabulary. When I said, “I have always read lots of comic books,” her response accompanied with a tilt of her head was a brief, bewildered “Oh.” Thank you, Stan Lee, for the gift of leaving my composition teacher at a loss for words.
My wish for growing mainstream acceptance of my secret hobby began in one, high-flying, single bound with the box office success of Superman The Movie in 1978. I couldn’t wait to see Superman take flight in a believable way on the big screen. I wasn’t disappointed; it remains the movie I have watched more times than any other. Unfortunately, after the equally-awesome Superman II, the public’s interest in big screen comic book movies withered with the declining quality of each Superman sequel. I would have to wait another decade for one of my other favorite heroes to come to the rescue.
In college at VCU School of the Arts, I even felt hesitant to reveal to my fellow art students that I still read comics. Each week on new comic day at the local book shop, I would catch the eye of another classmate who was both embarrassed to be seen spinning the racks, yet at the same time relieved to find another member of the Secret Comics Club. You would think in art school, there would be more appreciation and acceptance of the comics medium as an art form, but we kept each others’ secret, still fearing the stigma. Contributing to our wariness were the rumors of other comic book-loving students having their classwork devalued or prejudged by teachers, who disapproved of their comic book inspirations. Maybe we were being overly paranoid, but that was how we had been conditioned to feel for our entire comic book-reading lives. I was careful to bring my weekly haul back to my apartment during times I knew my roommates were in class, and hid them away, only reading them when I had privacy.
The first time I was embarrassed to be “outed” as an adult was when a college girlfriend (also an art school student) got into my car and her foot bumped into the noisy brown paper bag containing my just-purchased weekly pile I had hidden under her seat. I will never forget the look on her face as she peeked into the bag and said, “COMIC BOOKS???” Her expression and tone of voice was full of disbelief and disappointment. Frankly, I think she would have been less shocked and disappointed if she had found porno mags in the bag! I was speechless in response because I felt ashamed. The rest of the ride was very quiet. We never talked about it again.
END OF PART I
PART II: The Rise of Geek Cool…nerds take over the world, Frank Miller and Tim Burton revive Batman, the first sparks of the MCU, and finally coming out of the comic book closet.