Obsession: Life in Comics

Hello. Welcome to my first article for iFanboy. You don’t know me. You don’t know how I feel about comics. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to want a little background before you start reading my column. With that in mind, my first two pieces are going to give you some background on just how big of an influence comics have been on my life.



Being a little English girl and liking American comics was always really weird. Right now comic books are a massive influence on mainstream culture, and even before that in the 90’s, girls started wearing tight clothes and yelling “girl power” a lot (for whatever it’s worth). But back when I was growing up, the idea of being feminine totally precluded being powerful.

MaleficantWhen I was tiny, (I looked like Emily Strange, but more confused and pissed off), all the feminists I’d met didn’t wear bras or make-up, didn’t shave their legs or wear high-heels, and to be frank, it just didn’t look like fun. On the flip side, my Barbie dolls’ future career options didn’t seem too great either (whore? beach bunny?), and every Disney movie I saw was based on a fairy tale with some pretty girl getting crapped on by everyone, before getting rescued by a waspy-looking guy. I was confused, and even as a little kid, without knowing why, I began to seek out beautiful, powerful women.

Initially I thought that maybe I could grow up to be like the wicked step-mother in Snow White, (because if she hadn’t gone all psycho, she seemed like she’d have had a pretty amazing life, what with the magic powers and the scary good looks). Similarly, Maleficant seemed quite amazing (extremely powerful, and she definitely knew how to elicit respect from everyone). But again, she went a little nuts in the end, and these weren’t really appealing options.

Bash Street KidsThen one day when I was maybe 5 or 6, I found my dad’s Uncanny X-Men comics. This was pretty early days, (Bobby still did a lot of making ice slides – never really got that), Jean Grey was still Marvel-Girl in her little mini-dress, and Wolverine hadn’t even been thought of. But they were a team, and I liked what they could do. I remember asking my dad what they were, what they did. Up until then I’d only read English comics, with funny stories about misbehaving kids and anthropomorphized animals (Beano, Dandy, Whizzer & Chips. They’re kind of like the ones you guys get in the newspapers). While I loved them, and would read literally anything that was a comic, (more on that another time), this was something new; young people with powers. I wanted more.

But this was London in the 70’s, and I was too small to be allowed to go far. On top of that I only got an allowance of 40¢ a week, most of which I’d spend on candy. So I trawled the comic racks in the local candy stores, and did my best to find something, reading anything that I could find; Teen Titans,The Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Detective Comics. They were hard to follow, since I rarely found the same title twice, but it had planted the seed.

About once every year or so, we’d go for a visit to New York, where my mum’s family lived. Weirdly, I don’t remember ever connecting the magic of comic books with this country. I’d see ads on tv for Spider-Man toys, all the boys would be playing with them, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to. When the ads with the girls came on, I dutifully paid attention to the dolls they had, and tried to want them.

Uncanny X-MenSometime around 9 or 10 years old, I was visiting my grandma in a suburb of London. With nothing to do, she sent me off to find something at the local news stand. There I found the Uncanny X-Men again! I was thrilled, absolutely overjoyed, and ran back clutching my comic. Of course this was confusing, it looked really different from my dad’s comics. These were oversized, black and white reprints that they made in the UK (don’t ask me why). The style was different too, everything looked far slicker, John Byrne and Terry Austin were creating these amazing smooth lines. More of a surprise, the characters had thoughts, problems, relationships. In retrospect it was kind of clunky, but at the time it was completely enthralling for me.

I’ll never forget how Storm’s cloak would flow out in furious waves when she got pissed off and started a storm, it was fantastic. And when Jean Grey became Phoenix, it blew my mind. She could eat planets! This was power. And they were beautiful women, terrifying and strong. I couldn’t have been happier.

The only thing that made life bearable was knowing that I could go home and lock myself in my room to read and re-read all my comics. I liked it when the art was great, but when it wasn’t, the stories still thrilled me. It seemed like a lot of artists had a hard time drawing a strong woman, so I’d take a look at their broken heroic poses, (where one leg was longer than the other, or their heads were much smaller than their tits), and I’d get into that pose and draw myself in that position, so that I could see where the artist was going wrong. I was so embarrassed to be doing this strange thing, that I didn’t tell anyone, but at the end of the year my art teach was getting really irritated that my sketch book was so thin, and was threatening a bad grade (and in the UK this is kind of serious, because there are exams at 16 and we specialize early). So finally I told him about my secret life-drawing studies. He insisted that I put the sketch book into the examiners. It helped me get an A, and no one ever knew that the reason I’d done so many figure studies was to figure out what a woman’s body would look like in flight.

Next week: I find comic stores, I get really hooked. The good stuff comes out. I spread the gospel. I move to America and remember that comics are made here.

Continued here: 07/25/08 – Obsession: Life in Comics – Part 2


Sonia Harris is a Londoner who lives in San Francisco. All day she designs stuff. It’s fun. She can be reached at sonia@ifanboy.com

 

Comments

  1. Welcome, Sonia!  This is a great intro.  I love the idea of dubious figure drawing in comics as an incentive to an art career. 

    I’m intrigued by this story and can’t wait for the comics shops to come in —

    And I’d never looked at that Dark Phoenix Saga art in black and white.  It looks really good like that.  
    The coloring in the trade reprints from that era can be pretty unfortunate so it’s nice to get a look at just the lines and the ink.

  2. Great column Sonia.

    So you’re from the UK, live in San Francisco, enjoy the X-men … Have you met Ron?

    Also, if you could take a moment to explain Fred Basset to us Yanks that would be great.  It seems that there is always a missing final panel in Fred Basset comics … possibly one that makes it funny.

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Fantastic first column. I actually felt like a little British girl after reading that. Of course that may just be because it’s Friday.
    Anyway, it’s great to hear that the same childhood experiences were happening across oceans at that time in comics. You captured all of the same feelings I had when I first found those Byrne/Claremont issues and the world they created for me. Great article! 

    shit. I’m gonna have to step up my game now… 

  4. Good job, welcome aboard!

  5. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Welcome, Sonia!  This was a great idea for a column and I look forward to part II.  

    It’s funny.  As an American, I think my first real appreciation for comics was with Tintin.  I wonder if it wasn’t the call of something exotic from someplace far from my front stoop.   

  6. Thinking about it myself, my first comic was an American reprint of the UK Dr. Who Weekly comics…

     

    Funny. 

  7. Nice first article Sonia!  It was a great read and really got me thinking about strong women in comics.  I think, as times have gone by, women have definitely been written much better, with more complexity and strength.  One of my new favorite books is Manhunter, which features a great female lead, and Bendis’ Alias is an all time great series.  Hmm…it looks like I have some reading to do again….

  8. Welcome aboard, Sonia.

     

    Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  9. Welcome.

  10. Great column, Sonia–I love your origin story! Very cool.  You’re giving us even more reasons to look forward to Friday!

     Yay!

    -m

  11. I still remember the singular pleasure or rereading and rerereading the few comics I was lucky enough to have squirrelled away in my room. It seems almost inconceivable now; there are so many things competing for attention, just among the stacks of comics themselves. I’m so pleased now to be able to read a thing a single time!…

    Of course, in the early days I spent a lot of my time reading G.I. Joe, which is probably the very least little-English-girl comic to have been conceived, perhaps ever. 

  12. As I am likely subconsciously paternalistic in my thoughts (which at least I can admit), I have never thought of comic book females as being sole examples of women who were both beautiful and strong.  Fascinating that these phallocentric stories were such a source of feminist pride.

  13. Welcome, Sonia!

    I love reading stories about how people get into comics, especially those who, unlike me, actually managed to find their way to them in childhood.  Your story is fascinating, and it’s always great to see another smart woman writing about comics, and the women in them.   I’m very excited to read your future articles.

  14. Oooh comments! Thank you for reading, you’re making me very grateful for being invited to be a part of the iFanboy community.

    @emergenyexit: Yes, Ron adds a lot of value to San Francisco. I only dimly remember Fred Basset cartoons, and don’t think I ever understood the appeal either.

    @ChrisNeseman: From meeting you briefly, I’d say you’d make a really scary little girl.

    @josh: not so much feminist pride, simply the one place at that time, where I saw sexy women with planet-eating levels of power. 

  15. Great first column, Being English myself but growing up in the states i always enjoy hearing comic related experiences from back home. keep up the good work and i look forward to reading more.

  16. I make a very cute little girl thank you very much!

     

    Don’t make me call INS. 

  17. Awesome article, good to have another great writer sharing these thoughts with us. I love how you’re serialising your own life, reminds me of what Bret Easton Ellis did with Lunar Park (yet, thankfully, nowhere near as creepy). Looking forward to part 2! 🙂

  18. Fascinating! I would love to here more of your thoughts on women in comics and comics in general in a podcast or an article!

  19. Pee Ess I’m also a designer, W00T!

  20. Welcome, welcome, welcome!  It is nice to hear of your experiences and I am looking forward to reading your articles.

     

    I tried to remember, and I can’t think of who it is that I wanted to be when I was younger.  I used to say it was Heather Thomas so I could hang out with Lee Majors and be a Billy Badass all the time, but after having watched some episodes of The Fall Guy on Hulu, I am not so sure I want to admit that anymore. I will say this though, I didn’t really like all that princess girly junk either.  I was just talking to my parents the other day about the fact that I was more likely to be running around the house singing Jim Croce songs or reading books with a flashlight all night in my tent bed (it was a tent that you put on top of your bed, thank you 80’s).  That all doesn’t really have anything to do with comics, but thank you very much for the trip down memory lane anyway.

  21. Holy Itemized Illustrations! Tax deductable comics? You are simply the luckiest woman on the face of the earth!

  22. Great article Sonia, I like to know the secret origin of you all.  I got into comics with those Uncanny issues when I found my brother’s stash about the same age.  Couldn’t stop drawing the characters on everything around me and went to a magnet high school for art because of it.  Something about that era, those comics were an awesome introduction.    

  23. Hey, I just finished my GCSE’s -Art & Design in particular. I kind of had a similar problem with the thin notebook but about a week before deadline I kind of worked overtime to fill it up. Went from 2 to 28 pages in 3 days. I did this 3 times give or take a few pages. I really wished it was comic art though. Would have been far more interesting than…peppers. Yes. Peppers. You’d be suprised how much you can get out of peppers art wise.

  24. 40¢ on candy in London… Is that translated as "20p on sweets"? You could’ve bought a copy of 2000AD from 1977 and had 11p left over (5 curly whirlies and a gobstopper!). American comics were always too expensive in the UK. Captain Britain, the American comic in disguise, was cheaper, though, at 10p.

  25. You know, you can have the veritable pick of the litter (above.)  Good, well thought, critical reviews of comics done by one without a Y chromosome.