Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Comics aren't for kids any more

They reckon there is no shame in reading comics in public. Newspaper and magazine articles have been breathlessly telling us for the past two decades how much comics have grown up, and how they're not just for kids any more, and the odd one has even managed to avoid using cheesy sound effects in its headline.

While it's got to the point where comic readers are completely bloody sick of all those sweeping statements, the general public are still pretty bloody clueless. The amount of big, shiny blockbusters filling multiplexes every summer has certainly increased recognition of second and third-tier characters such as Iron Man and Blade, but these have also led to an increase in the idea that these are the only comics being published.

Despite the best efforts of Ghost World, American Splendour and many other fine adaptations, (which can now sit ignored on the back catalogue shelf of your local DVD store), along with the massive influx of manga material over the past decade, the prevailing connection society has with comics in this weird cultural mainstream is the super hero angle.

This inevitably leads to the fact that despite what they've been telling us all for decades, many people still consider comics a child's medium. These same people might be more than a little surprised to see some of the ultra-violence and mature situations that crop up in modern super hero comics, but as they're unlikely to even step foot in a comic store or glance at the graphic novel section of their local chain bookstore, it's not something that is really going to mess with their misconceptions.

So while sitting under a tree on a sunny day reading a big, fat Vertigo book is a fine way to spend an afternoon, sooner or later somebody is still going to see you doing it, snicker to themselves, point and laugh.

But so what? Anyone who has grown up reading comic books will be familiar with this, and a whole lot more. There's that teenage period where the desire to do away with childish things is seen as far more important than any inconvenient facets like enjoyment.

And the major comic companies have to be congratulated for now doing a fairly good job holding onto those readers who suddenly find themselves more interested in girls than who is carrying Captain America's shield, (even if they're done a completely fucking rubbish job of holding on to any other kind of reader).

Even if immaturity is an image the medium has somehow managed to claw its way away from, it has only been replaced by the equally mockable aura of geekiness. Media reports of something like local comic conventions are invariably tainted with this brush, although attendees in costume do little to reject the notion that all those who enjoy reading comics are hardcore geeks who fantasise over their latest long-limbed and two-dimensional object of desire, while obsessing over who could take who in a fight.

My best mate Kyle loves the X-Men and has steadily built up a fantastic collection that includes an unbroken run of more than 300 solid issues. For almost 20 years, he has regularly bought every issue of X-Men, both Uncanny and regular, along with a fair amount of spin off titles. He has had an arrangement with a comic shop 200 kilometres from his home for more than a decade, which has ensured he has never missed an issue since giving in to his addiction.

But for a while there, even though a parcel of comics brought him genuine pleasure, he was a little ashamed of the habit. Whenever he received a package from the comic store, he would call them magazines instead of comics, as if he was too embarrassed to tell a full room of people (who had all known him for years and were fully aware of his tastes), what he was really reading. He didn't have to, although with many of these packages containing an issue or two of the official Doctor Who magazine, he was technically right, even if the new arrivals were mainly comic-related.

Kyle doesn't care about that any more, and is only too happy to come out with the word “comic” these days, because he doesn't care if somebody laughs at him for it. It's their problem, not his.

The fact is, reading comics well past that age when it suddenly becomes socially unacceptable is hardly a sign of immaturity. If anything, it shows there is no need for an unhealthy reliance on the influence of others. These people, all of us, who make our own decisions, who follow our own paths, who choose our own entertainments, we have just grown as human beings enough to not care about appearances, to be happy with what we enjoy.

This is the real maturity in comic books, showing that we've grown past that awkward adolescent where our image is everything, into an adulthood of freedom. After all, comics really aren't just for kids any more, and we should read what we like.

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