The term "sequential art" was coined by legendary comic book creator Will Eisner in his 1985 book Comics and Sequential Art. In the book, Eisner provides analysis of comic books through demonstrations of principles and methods. Technically, sequential art goes back a lot further than the advent of the comic book. Way further back. We're talking pre-history now. Cave paintings, through Greek and Roman friezes and columns, to Mayan codices, into tapestries and paintings, up to the invention of the printing press (when speech bubbles were developed), and beyond, eventually coming to what i'll be focusing on now - comic books.
Yes, comic books. Those things that all the summer blockbusters are based on. The (former) four-color funny books. Now, before i go on, it bears mentioning that sequential art and comics are by no means limited to the capes-and-tights realm. Comics really run the gamut of themes, topics, and content. The term graphic novel is also used somewhat interchangeably with comics as well, and lends a bit more gravitas to the concept. But at the end of the day, let's face it - superhero comics are the bread-and-butter of the industry.
That's not to say they're the best kind, which is of course a matter of taste. But if you say the word "comic book" to someone, chances are pretty darn good that the image that springs into their mind is individuals with extraordinary powers or abilities in colorful costumes fighting bad guys. They're our modern mythology. They're the catalyst for the question "if you had a superpower, what would it be?"
Incidentally, i would choose teleportation, hands down. Often, people say "flight," which is certainly appealing. But i ask you: what could really do through flight that teleportation wouldn't achieve? Just teleport into the sky if you want that sensation, and make sure you've got one of those funky flying squirrel-esque wing suits. Plus you could do all sorts of funny things like wait until the sun is coming up and pretend like you're a vampire who fades away in the sunlight. Or walk around the Louvre in your underwear and let the security guards monitoring the camera wonder "comment at-il ici?"
Comics as a subculture fascinates me. It's probably not much different than other subcultures in terms of having its own jargon, idiosyncrasies, rituals, and traditions. But i'm pretty firmly in the comic book nerd camp, so it's one that i'm more familiar with. One of my favorite insider situations just happened to me last week. It's that scenario where you discover someone else, maybe someone you already know, is a fanboy just like you.
Before work one day, i had some extra time on my hands and stopped at the coffee shop where i've spent countless hours over the last...geez it's been something like 20 years now. That might not have been the case had the ownership not changed shortly after i started hanging out there, because a friend and i got kicked out for playing Magic: The Gathering. The proprietor told us he wanted his cafe to be "a place of light, and that game is bringing dark energy." i felt like saying "hey buddy - my decks are blue and white!"
Anyway, i'm sitting there last week, making some notes about the interview i had planned (which you should definitely stop back here this weekend to read). In comes a guy who i work with. He had the day off. Now i already know this guy is a nerd (don't worry - if you're a nerd, being acknowledged as such is a compliment). We've chatted about science fiction and role-playing games before, but nothing too in-depth.
"Hey Dave," i said as he made his way to the counter. "What brings you out here?"
"It's Wednesday," he said, gesturing slightly with his head, the conspiratorial nod. i knew what he meant. He followed up, just in case i didn't. "New comics day."
And there it was. The secret handshake of all comics fans. The code word that explains everything about your agenda on that particular day of the week. The day when new books are on the shelf.
Says it all.
And boy did it define my mid-week activities for oh...a couple of decades at least. That's another thing i've noticed about us comics fans - the Wednesday ritual. Every one has got one, at least i'm pretty sure they do. You go to get your books, and then hurry off somewhere to devour them in your own special way. The ritual can change over time, go through phases, but it's there in some way.
As a kid, in elementary school, my Wednesday ritual used to take place on Friday by circumstance. Every Friday night at my school they hosted bingo games. After school, a group of us volunteered to set up all the tables and chairs in the gymnasium, and then we'd return in the evening after everyone had left to take them down. Once everything was set up, they'd pay us $10 and a soda, and the same plus a bag of chips to take them down later.
And every Friday, after getting that $10, i furiously pedaled my bike directly to the comic book store for my fix. Back then $10 went quite a bit further than it does now, so i could really stock up on three, four, five books or more. My most vivid memory from that era was the Infinity Gauntlet story arc from Marvel Comics. My collecting habits were somewhat unsophisticated at the time. Basically i just picked up whatever looked cool. So you'll notice i started reading this story when it was already four issues in. But as you'll find out a bit later, diving into a series became a hobby of mine later on, and the hunt for back issues a satisfying game.
If i'm totally honest, i had no idea who this character even was at the time. Observant viewers of this summer's blockbuster Avengers film might have a leg up on the 12-year-old version of me. Looking back now, i see what they did there. Well played, cover designer. Well played.
Comic books played a major role in my life earlier than the halycon days of elementary school too. Much earlier. Comics are the medium through which i learned to read. After plumbing the depths of my memory and poking around a bit, i'm almost certain that the first printed words i ever comprehended were in 1981, age 3, in Captain America #253:
Back then, my older brother was a huge comics fan as well. He had pilfered milk crates from 7-11 in our shared closet that were stuffed with them. Thinking back, i can't imagine they were in any sort of logical order, instead just stacked up and crammed into the remaining space. Weird War Tales lay atop Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The X-Men were hanging out with the Justice League. No bags and boards. It was nuts. Maybe it was some internal cataloging system that made sense only to him, or maybe he just didn't want me touching his stuff. Probably the latter. But i did anyway.
Once in a while, our mom would read comics to us. Usually this was after a trip to the grocery store, because my brother and i would spend most of the time in the magazine aisle, at the rotating comic book rack. Whatever we didn't finish reading at the store, we'd slip into the cart. Neither of us went in for Archie and Veronica though - it's was all about Marvel and DC. So the day comes when my brother and i are planted on the couch to either side of our mom. She's reading the Cap book to us, about his adventure in England helping an old friend with what turns out to be a vampire problem courtesy of Baron Blood. Now, i don't recall exactly which panel it was - my memory's not that good - but i distinctly remember looking ahead a few panels and i could understand what was in the balloons! Needless to say, it did not come as much of a surprise when Cap used his shield to behead the nefarious bloodsucker. i'd already read that part.
By the time i'd reached my 20's, you'd better believe i had quite a collection of my own going on. My relationships with others has always been a bit on the transitory side, so maybe i fell into comics a bit more heavily because of that (or maybe vice versa?). At any rate, i couldn't get enough of the things. And my favorite aspect of them, as a hobby, was the hunt. While at the comic shop, i'd come across a book that looked cool, and let's say it was issue #40. Back at home, upstairs in my room, i'd ravenously consume it. How did i ever miss this? No matter - better late than never right? And so the hunt begins.
Recent issues are easy - the last two or three are typically still in the new books section or at least close at hand. Then it's time to hit the back issue bins. That process usually goes pretty smoothly as well, and the next thing you know your collection of a particular run is looking pretty substantial. But there's always those missing issues you can't find. The gaps in the collection - issues #12, 25, and 32. Why are those missing from the bin? Are they really awesome? Better start expanding your search to other comic shops. As a side note, this is pre-Internet days here. You younger comic collectors and your Internet are missing out.
At some point, you've collected nearly the entire run and you're feeling pretty good about it. Except for the crown jewel - issue #1. Maybe you came across it at some point, but it was selling for $20 or more. Are you willing to shell out that bingo money for the satisfaction of completion? If you were me, then yes. And then you get older, and start earning more income, and it's not even a question.
Now, lest you imagine i'm writing this from a room, sitting at a desk surrounded by stacks of longboxes filled with boarded-and-bagged comics, i have something to confess. They're all gone. Yep, all those years spent vigorously collecting are in the past. i crossed the threshold that probably every comic collector faces at some point - whether or not to sell the collection. In my case, i did, but not because i lost interest by any means. My collection was sold along with literally everything else i owned except what fit in a rugged backpack to finance an adventure through Europe back in 2001. It was a strange, exciting time.
The loss of my collection did not diminish my love for comics though. And i certainly didn't shed the load because i felt like leaving those childhood things behind was a rite of passage into adulthood. On the other hand, since then i've noticed that when i'm thinking about comics, usually i'm wondering what the heroes do when they're not dispensing vigilante justice. They're still supposed to be real people in their universes right? If the adult-me has any influence on my perceptions of comic book heroes, it's this - i don't understand the reasoning that connects the acquisition of extraordinary power with the penchant for donning a costume and putting yourself in dangerous situations for altruistic purposes. Maybe that makes me sound like a jerk, but if i gained some kind of super power, i don't think i would make the leap to "hey i should dress up and go out at night looking for trouble!" More likely, i'd try to think of some way to exploit what i could do. Maybe that's how super villains get started. To be fair to both sides though - and this is especially true of technology-based bad guys - why don't they just patent their diabolical devices instead of getting the crap kicked out of themselves trying to rob a bank with them?
By this point, if you're still reading, my guess is that some of you are thinking "what did I get myself into? This thing is long!" <that's what she said>
So how about we break it up into two segments. There's even a nice transition from this point, because like countless other comic fanboys, i too have dipped my toe in the comic creation pool. So you can rest easy now - you're almost to the end.
When i started writing on this particular topic, if i'm honest i wasn't entirely sure where it would go. Certainly, i figured it would be more meaty than some other stuff because frankly comics are a big part of my life so i knew i'd have quite a bit of rambling to do before i got somewhere. To keep on point, the basic idea was comics as a form of escapism. So if you'll indulge my spin on that, i'd contend that comic books, despite the solitary nature of the enjoyment of them, give fans a bit of escapism on two fronts.
The obvious nature of comics is that they offer a fantasy world. They are full of heroes and villains who struggle endlessly in what Superman has often described as the never-ending battle. Comics give us examples of heroes we can look up to and be inspired by. Some of them, like Superman, are practically flawless heroes - idealized versions of what it means to be a good person and always do the right thing. Others, like Spider-Man, show us that even people with problems, foibles, or every reason not to do the right thing all the time can still triumph over adversity. And hopefully, by getting involved in their world, we can take some of that back with us and be better people.
In another way, comics give us a little escape from reality when we connect with others who share that passion. As i mentioned earlier, there's a subculture of comic book fans out there from all walks of life. And a good portion of us don't wear our dedication on our sleeves (maybe on our chests though - t-shirt merchandising is pretty big). There's a special moment when you meet someone else who's into comics. It doesn't matter what you thought of the person before that, if you had any preconceived notions, or even if you particularly liked them much. Inevitably, an immediate bond is formed. You talk about your favorite characters, what kinds of comics you liked, and when you first got into comics. Believe me - everyone remembers when they got into comics. And anyone into comics will take a few moments to shoot the breeze with you about it. They've shared your experience escaping into that other world.
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You made it! Congratulations, you toughed it out. That jaunt down memory lane was pretty fun for me. Coming up, i am looking forward to Part 2 of this discussion on comics - my own experience as a creator. i think you'll enjoy it too. There's a lot more pictures to look at.
Also ahead is my interview with Paul O'Connor. Some of you may already know about him if you've followed the link from here at The Long Shot and checked out Longbox Graveyard, his awesome comics-related blog. Paul is a fascinating guy that does so much more too. He was super cool about speaking with me and i can't wait to share his story with you.
Thanks for visiting!