Tuesday, June 2, 2009

comics and me

I don't usually count comic books, even comic book collections, in my end of the year book tally. Part of the reason is that I read so many of them that it doesn't feel like reading, like I feel as if I shouldn't list it as an accomplishment if it didn't take any real effort. I don't count cookbooks, or, as they are known around here, "food porn", for the same reason. There are so many shiny pictures and they're so fun to read that it doesn't seem right to count them as reading.

This year I'm going to make an exception, and count Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection on my reading list, because it's the kind of big, thick trade paperback that reminds me of why I love comic books. For me, comic books are a transcendent art form. Other people feel this way about music, or movies, or painting or sculpture or whatever else, but comic books touch something important inside of me and put me in touch with my feelings the way no other form of art ever quite seems to. For whatever reason, comic books speak to my heart while everything else speaks to my brain.

On first glance, Zot! doesn't seem like the kind of story that would do that. It's the story of a boy, Zot, who comes from the dazzling future world of the year 1965, a dizzying time of robot butlers and flying cars where everything is shiny and everyone is perfect. Zot is in love with Jenny, a girl from a terribly depressing place of broken dreams, disappointment, and loneliness, which is our world, sometime in the early 1980s. Over the course of the four years collected here, Zot and Jenny try to bridge the gap between their dimensions and themselves, but it's also a story about dreams, unrequited love, friendship, growing up, heartbreak, identity, and ultimately of hope for a better tomorrow. When I finished it, I wanted to read it all over again and, more than that, I wanted Zot and Jenny and all of their friends to be ok.

I wanted to write Scott McCloud a letter just to say, "Hey, I liked this. It made me feel," but I know that doesn't fully express what I'm trying to say, and I'm not articulate to get the point across. There wasn't a specific story or moment, but I've had an incredibly stressful week or so at work and reading this made me feel better. Maybe when I've had a few days or weeks to think about it, I'll have processed more, but for now that's probably enough.

Given that, and given that I rarely talk about comics here, I might as well cover a couple more, because they're the comics I use as examples when people ask why I like comics so much. One, The Plain Janes, has a message for everyone, but the other, "Planet Krypton" #1 (collected in The Kingdom), isn't really that good a story and only has personal meaning for me.

For starters, "The Kingdom" was a horrible miniseries, a followup to the much better plotted and illustrated Kingdom Come miniseries. "The Kingdom" is choppy, poorly illustrated (for Nightstar's arm to bend the way it is in the first issue splash page, it would have to be detached from her body at the shoulder inside her sleeve), and a lot of it feels like filler. Right in the middle of the series, though, there were a set of one shot showcase issues about various characters, and this is where "Planet Krypton" landed. Unique among the series, it's named after a place instead of a character, the Planet Krypton restaurant that former Justice League member Booster Gold runs as a kind of superhero themed Planet Hollywood with Batarangs on the walls and waiters dressed as Aquaman, and the protagonist isn't a superhero.

Rose D'Angelo is a waitress who works at Planet Krypton, dressed as Supergirl. She has had some kind of falling out with her family and sleeps in the restaurant storeroom at night in secret, which leads her to discover that the restaurant is haunted by the ghosts of people who never were. Rose doesn't recognize the spirits, but astute DC fans recognize them as characters from alternate timelines and out of continuity stories as Rose drifts among them, staring at the Kristen Wells Superwoman, or Ultra the Multi Alien, or Luma Lynai, or... well, you get the idea. Eventually Rose tells the spirits her story, explaining that she came from a poor family, and that her mother and sister wanted her to marry the flashy guy with big ideas who proposed to her, but Rose said no and let her family down. In her own words, she had a chance to be a hero, and she failed.

Eventually Batman comes to investigate the spirits, at Booster's request, and stumbles across Rose. Advising her to leave, he determines that the spirits are reflections of parallel universes, alternate timelines where things changed just a little. Discovering the cause, he removes it, and the spirits begin to fade as Rose watches. Batman leaves, advising her to go home, and as she turns to do so, Rose sees herself. Rose D'Angelo's parallel universe self is the last spirit in the restaurant, and she's waiting tables in her Supergirl uniform, and she's wearing an engagement ring and a wedding band. It's the Rose D'Angelo who gave in and did exactly what her family wanted, and it didn't change a thing. Seeing her, even just for a second, Rose understands that she was a hero, not to her family but to herself, and she walks out of Planet Krypton into the rising sun.

It sounds cheesy, I know, but there it is. I read "Planet Krypton", and I decided that I needed to come out to my parents. I'd been out to my friends for years, to my staff, to my students, but not to my father. I'd come out to mom when she asked straight out, and she almost ran off the road, told me to date more girls, and made me swear never to tell my father, and for years I didn't. I kept it to myself, allowed it to become a secret, and let myself think of being gay as something that needed to be hidden away. When I read that comic, Rose D'Angelo saw herself and I saw myself. I was beating myself up and denying part of who I was to please my family, and in the end it might not make any difference. I came out to my dad and my mom (who pretended this hadn't all happened once before) at the same time, within a week of reading that comic, and my dad was completely ok. Honesty healed a lot of our relationship, and we get along a hell of a lot better now. Metaphorically, I walked out of the restaurant into the sun, too, but in jeans and a t shirt instead of a polyester Supergirl outfit.

This is what comics mean to me. This is what they reach in me that other things cannot.

I'll save "The Plain Janes" for another night, as I've now outgayed, and with the mention of Luma Lynai, a character that I recognized without reference material despite her only appearing one time, ever, in five pages of a Legion of Superheroes story written before I was born, outgeeked myself enough for one evening.


stanford said...

I think it counts.

I have never really been into comics, but recently read Mccloud's 'Understanding Comics: the invisiable art' and was healed of genre snobery. The idea that they would have emotive access that other art forms do not have is a pretty interesting one.

Anonymous said...

I read comics just because nothing I have read in the past few years have compared to the stories that I found in comics.....(except maybe harry potter)... I think the artwork accentuates the stories more than the written word can say... Just makes me enjoy the story more.....