When I was five years old, I got my tonsils taken out. I was sharing a room with four other kids and one of them had a Fantastic Four comic that I really wanted to read, but he wouldn’t let me. So when he got taken off somewhere for his operation, I stole it and hid it under my mattress and when he came back I said I didn’t know what had happened to it.
Children can be evil little shits, and I was obviously no exception.
I lost that Fantastic Four comic soon after discharge, but comics have been inexorably linked with illness in my life ever since then. The few times I had to return to hospital as a kid, I always used the sympathy of family to convince me to get them the latest 2000ad or Justice League. I can still remember the joy of waking up from one operation to see a brand spankin’ new Judge Dredd comic from the Eagle reprints run, with the gorgeous Bolland cover of two fatties menacing a slim man for his grub. I was still swimming in nausea and other post-operation weirdness, but I was all about the comic.
Outside of hospitals, comics and sickness still go together. I still remember staying home from school one morning in 1984, and having my Mum come home with a new comic called GI Joe. That day I read that sucker over and over again, marveling at the fantastic paper stock used on that first issue (still relatively rare for a Marvel comic at this time) and trying to get my head around all the new characters. It wasn’t enough to spark a fully grown interest in GI Joe, (that would come 64 issues later), but it was still something that helped me feel a bit better.
This might be the best thing about reading comics in your sick bed. They’re unlikely to actually help you heal, but getting lost in a pile of comics helps you forget your own misery for a while. It can take your mind off the pain and nausea, and offer you some mind candy to replace it with.
On the other hand, there are still some comics that are inevitably tainted from reading them while stuck in a sickbed. I cant even look at some artists without remembering the time I was ill while reading their work, and the phantom nausea comes back on again.
It’s still happening. Last week I read Thor: Vikings by Ennis and Fabry when I was feeling a bit crook, and I think I may have ruined it for myself. Every time I’ve glanced at the cover since, that same uncomfortable feeling has settled in the gut and I don’t want to go any further.
It’s a perfectly acceptable comic which says some interesting things about the way our modern society is safe from devastating raids and the rape, pillage and mass murder that follows, but I don’t think I'll be able to read it ever again.
Only one comic has ever actually made me throw up. I can handle the worst of R Crumb or S Clay Wilson, but an issue of English kids comic Oink! made me lose my breakfast when I was 12 years old. The comic was an attempt to do Viz for kids, which mainly meant it couldn’t do anything about sex, but had no problem with grossness.
It was a bit like the Garbage Pail Kids, and perfectly harmless for little kids, (and apparently featured the earliest work of Charlie Brooker, my favourite English shouter) but one day it tripped some switch in my head and had me throwing up in a rubbish bin behind the bicycle sheds at Temuka High School and staggering home to collapse into bed.
One interesting side-effect of the use of comics to placate sick kids is how the love for the medium can get seared in their fevered heads. It’s not that surprising to see how many creators were terribly sick at some point as a child, falling in love with comics while stuck in bed, sometimes for months at a time.
Morrison and Quitely's Flex Mentallo makes a specific connection between the weird scariness of being in hospital as a young kid and the weird heroics of superhero comics, with Morrison blatantly hiding autobiography behind the super-plot.
Maybe the light-headed nature of illness help build an appreciation of comics, full of fever dreams and superheroes, and maybe the pleasant optimism of many classic superhero stories helps the sick, in more ways than we can imagine.
All of this leads to the enormous satisfaction I get in dropping off a boxful of old comics at the local hospital for the kids to enjoy. You could make a couple of bucks selling them, but that’s nothing compared to the smugness you can generate through a worthy donation.
At least you know there are comics in there that kids are going to genuinely love, even though they probably won’t last long before being accidentally read to pieces.
Chances are, there will be one evil bastard in there who will steal one of those comic from a roommate and hide under his mattress. But can you blame him?