The Stealth Boom


psstOne day, a couple of months ago, I woke up in a Cold War spy novel.

At a certain point during the Year of The Dark Iron Knight Man, people began sidling up to me. People I didn’t know well started planting conspirational whispers in my ears in public places as their eyes darted nervously around the room.

The first time it happened, I was at a block party in my neighborhood. I was absent-mindedly loading up my plate, wondering why I had not seen a single insect all summer but now that we were trying to have one cookout all of the world’s missing bees had reappeared solely to establish a settlement on my bratwurst. Just then, one of my neighbors, a middle-aged woman from down the street, approached me at the buffet table. She too appeared to be loading up her plate; she kept her head turned squarely towards the food, as if she didn’t want her body language to betray to anyone else that we were talking.

Out of the corner of her mouth, she muttered to me, “So. Your wife tells me you collect comic books?” exactly the way you would talk to someone from whom you were trying to score drugs. The only time anyone on the street ever asked me, “You get high?” this was the way they did it.

“Oh!” I said, having been taken by surprise by the direction the small talk was taking. “I do, yes! I’ve read them on and off for years, and recently I’ve been horribly writing about them as well on this web site–”

She looked around like a startled fawn. I think I was being a little too loud. “Yeah,” she said. “I have boxes and boxes of them myself, going back years. A friend of mine used to own a shop over on–”

Another of our neighbors wandered over to the table, and this conversation abruptly ended, never to be revisited.

A month later or so, I brought a stack of comics to the nearby Subway to read over lunch. As I sat there munching my club sandwich and thumbing through the latest Wolverine, I kept glancing up and catching the guy sweeping the floor looking at me. After about the fourth time I caught him, he made his way over to me.

Oh, no, I thought, am I about to have a fight with the mop boy? Did I let too much lettuce fall out onto the floor?

wanna buy an 8?I was wincing in anticipation of a broom handle cleaving my temple when he said, quietly, “Did X-Factor come out this week? I’ve been trying to get back into it ever since ‘Messiah CompleX.'”

Again, while I always like running into a fellow fan, the way he asked this question made me feel like I was in some sort of secret society. Before he got spooked and scuttled off, I wanted to say, “You know, we’re not actually in the French Resistance. We just have some Spider-Man under the bed.”

Since then, things like this have just kept happening. I catch a friend with Astonishing X-Men trades; when asked about them, he jumps out a window. I catch a copy of Watchmen poking from a friend’s bag; she immediately shreds and eats it. (Watchmen is popping up a lot among the unusual suspects, actually. It’s getting passed around my friends and acquaintances like a flu.) I recently found out a lawyer friend of mine is suddenly obsessed with graphic novels after reading about Fun Home in the New York Times. She’s tearing through all the Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel she can get her hands on. Before this, her only exposure to comics in the U.S. (she’s Indian) was coming with me to buy Marvels from the Dragon’s Dungeon in college; making conversation, she asked the Comic Book Guy if he had any Tintin or Archie and he reacted like she’d asked if he had any venereal diseases. It was like a one-act play called “Why I Stopped Shopping For This Stuff.” (My full “return” to comics was still many years away.)

The point is, all of these people are reading comics, and all of them are doing it on the down-low like they’re worshiping their God behind the Iron Curtain. And I get it; I tend to do it myself, even after all these years. When my neighbor muttered that my wife had outed me, my first thought was, Oh, honey, why did you tell her that? This is all I need now. I assumed the neighbor was going to treat me like a curiosity and try to engage me in small talk that ended with me feeling like I was wearing Spock ears. It never even occurred to me that she’d be a fellow reader, just as it had never occurred to her about me. Why would my friends be shy about talking to me about Watchmen? I’m sitting with my Wolverine in plain sight at the Subway; I put my name right at the top this column every week; why are people still peering out at me through a barely cracked closet door? It’s like being in some kind of double-blind fraternity. Nobody’s this weird about watching TV.

Well, maybe Big Brother.

Maybe I’ve been all wrong about comics evangelism this whole time. For years, I’ve seen people on sites like this one talking like missionaries and cringed. People will write about buying all their non-comic-reading friends graphic novels for Christmas, or insistently pressing trade paperbacks on friends like some kind of homespun geek outreach program, and in spite of myself I’ll always think, “If someone passionate about any other topic were doing that back to you all the time– spending every Christmas trying to get you into golf or World War II gaming or Krishna consciousness– you would fake strep throat every year for the rest of your life to get out of that gift exchange.”

Despite my love of the medium, I also can’t help but chafe a bit at the idea that I’m supposed to join the street team out of the goodness of my heart. The masterstroke of the “comics are dyyyyingscam is that it’s tricked readers into treating Batman comics like they’re the spotted owl, fretting, “If I don’t clap [copies of Scott Pilgrim into my friends’ hands], Tinkerbell will die!” The skeptic in me thinks Tinkerbell is doing just fine, and then it thinks, “They’re charging me $4.00 for half a comic, and now I’m doing their marketing for them too? Why don’t they come on over and make them with my printer while we’re at it, maybe help themselves to a little something from the fridge?”

But maybe all of that misses the point. Comics aren’t dying; for one thing, I just finished listening to Joe Quesada say on a talk show “the movies have had a huge impact on sales” as matter-of-factly as if he were describing the weather out the window, and clearly he has data I don’t. Comics are, however, on the cusp of evolving into some fantastical new beast. With or without me evangelizing Animal Man, comics have permeated the culture just fine, and more and more people — not people like me; normal people — are sniffing around that aisle at Borders with the Naruto toys hanging from the endcaps. They want to read comics; they’re just not sure it’s okay. No matter how many times they hear about Persepolis on NPR or see Joe Quesada on CNN, they still have visions of The 40-Year-Old Virgin in their heads. Just this past week on MTV’s Made, they turned a loser into a ladies’ man, and the loser’s chief crime was that he liked his superheroes. The “relationship expert” they sicced on him commanded as the first order of business that he remove all the comics and collectibles from his room (as if he were even ten steps away from getting a girl all the way to his room). Personally, I might have started with something like “be proud of who you are” or “work on your self-confidence” instead of “your shameful life should be in a trash bag,” but I guess that’s why I’m not an MTV relationship expert.

As much as I would dearly love to, I can’t go find the MTV kid, shake him by the shoulders and say, “Don’t listen to them! I made out just fine. Here; let me help you begin replacing your Apocalypse busts.” I also can’t go out there like a missionary converting the natives, planting paperbacks throughout my community like Johnny Marvelseed. What I can do, when someone sidles up to me and whispers, “doyoulikecomics?” is lead by example, treating the question like, “Did you see WALL-E?” rather than like, “Are you also in Skull and Bones?” It’s not an endangered species or a caste; it’s a medium. We don’t need a secret handshake. They’re books.



Jim Mroczkowski flies with the eagle at midnight. Leave the microfilm in a briefcase at Twitter or Jimski.com. END TRANSMISSION

 

Comments

  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Great, great piece, man.  Loved this. 

     

  2. Yes Siiir!

  3. You, sir, are very very poignant! Nice piece!

  4. Good piece. Twitter went out. I read. I registeed. I commend. I left.

  5. My name is Jay and I’m a comic book collector.  I have been collecting comics for years and I still feel weird about reading them outside the house or in front of family at the holidays.  This year I decided enough and actually put some TPB’s on my Christmas list and read a ton of stuff while hanging out with the relatives. Some of them even picked them up and started reading them.  Granted they were all the kids cousins, but what can you do.   Great article Jim. 

  6. Outstanding article!!  You are my Internet Hero Of The Day!!!  ^_^

  7. I started to break myself of the stealth habit by going to the burger joint across the street from my LCS every Wednesday to have lunch and read my stack. I’ve been doing this for two years, and I still get twitchy about it :/

  8. Very, very good sir. Enjoyed the article and absolutely echo your expeirence with the Watchmen – I’ve had friends (like ex-oilfield workers, dudes I wouldn’t peg reading many books, much less comic books) saying they read the library’s copy of the Watchmen and then go out and buy their own copy of it later. Bizarre.

  9. While reading comics (Scalped) and having a drink @ Starbucks last week, one of the employees, in the midst of cleaning tables, looks at and me says, "Scalped is soooo good, man."

     All I could do was agree.

  10. Nice article. 

    I’ll admit, I used to be a closet reader.  I commute to Wall St from my suburb home. I wear a suit and tie everyday. I’m married with kids... and there’s nothing I like doing better now then breaking out one of my comic books while sitting next to the guy reading the Wall St. Journal.  Unfortunately there is still a stigma associated with reading comics.  Similar to playing video games.  The ignorant don’t realize that these mediums cater to mature consumers as well and that the writing/stories, although accompanied by art, are on par with any hardcover non-graphic novel.  Their ignorance is perpetuated by how the media portrays the average comic book reader, an introverted adolescent-minded geek/nerd.  I just don’t care what people think anymore and if they ask, I’ll be happy to educate them about how wonderful comics are.

  11. Great article.  I can remember a friend of mine who loved everything about heroes, watched the x-men cartoon, knew everything about superman and batman that there was to know.  He just never read the books.  Last year for his birthday I gave him the first trade of Astonishing for his birthday, and the next thing I knew he was asking me where to go for more.  I think my favorite line of his was "I was always a comic book nerd, I just never bought the books".

     On a side note, I had the unfortunate happenstance of having a diseased appendix, when I went into surgery my surgeon had a Green Lantern and Flash pin on his coat.  As I drifted off into a anesthesia induced nap, I think I might have slurred something about hating Kyle Rainer…..  Makes me feel better that the surgeons of the world can enjoy a comic and not be ashamed.

  12. Great article Jim.

    I used to be in the closet but now I’m out in the open with my problem. Sure my parents question my tastes or beliefs, but damnit this is what I like. I mean I know I waste a lot of money in the stores I go into, but I love spending on stuff that I love. So there is nothing to be ashamed of Jim.

     

    …….We’re……We’re talking about homosexuality right?

  13. Brilliantly said.

  14. Like lexid523, I think that we should all grab our stacks and sit down at a restaurant or cafe and read. Don’t be ashamed. Just let those elegantly drawn and colored covers and panels shine, perhaps enticing curious onlookers the way a bakery’s aroma sucks in customers.

    Almost every Wednesday, I buy my issues from the LCS and head to the Vietnamese restaurant across the street to have the best meal of the week – not for the food, but for the company. Sometimes it’s Iceman, and sometimes it’s Alan Scott. But it’s always good. Let your freak flag fly!

  15. I definitely feel the secret club influence, but I feel like there are two camps.  I’m on the other side of the spectrum.  I get perhaps a little over enthused when faced with another "real life" comic book lover.  They calmy motion towards an issue I’m reading on the train, held high like a beacon in the night, and say, "You like comics?" My first response is to explode into a river of what I read, how long I’ve been reading, my thoughts on current storylines and a barrage of questions, in turn, about their comic history and opinions.  If they’re like myself (or a single male) their response will generally be equally enthused.  Otherwise they generally emit a generic one word response like, "cool" and scootch away looking suddenly very fascinated with the ad on the other side of the train.  I imagine I’m just as harmful to normalizing things…  I’m sorry.

  16. Oh and the president reads comics for crying out loud!

  17. Before I get in to anything long winded, I’ll say that this is a fantastic piece of writing.  How someone can entertain so much while still throwing the cold hard facts in their face is astounding to me.

    With the whole maturity thing, I can easily say that many graphic novels are much more mature and sophisticated, in a storytelling and content sense, than a lot of the books on the shelves.  (As I’ve said on threads before) I work in a Barnes and Noble and am constantly surrounded by other fiction. Our shelves are full of simple (often really trashy) romance novels and overtly violent and sexual "Urban Fiction." I’m not claiming that all comics outrank non-graphic fiction (or that they never fall into the same trappings of violence and sexuality) but it’s very easy for me to say that books like Scalped, DMZ or Sandman are of a higher calibur than any Nora Roberts book. (or J.D. Robb, whatever she’s calling herself this week). Ranking different types of fiction or genres against eachother feels wrong. I’m almost ashamed for what I just did because of the article about every geek having their place.

    Although that last paragraph may come off as critical of the Romance genre or the Urban Fiction genre, the point of it was to say that people rank all comics/graphic novels as a different medium that is below fiction, when I see it differently.  Comics should be rated against and compared to other forms of fiction, not just themselves. 

    I once had a customer who came in looking for Watchmen and when I handed him a copy I said, "I’m kinda the comics guy around here, if you have any questions about them let me know." He asked for some book recommendations. I gave him Sinestro Corps, Y: The Last Man, Sandman, The Walking Dead and Astonishing X-Men as great reader friendly books.  I figured that those books were different enough where one might interest him. After spending 5 minutes looking through them he told me "Yeah, those look stupid. Superheroes are kids stuff."  As the words "That’s what Watchmen is about," came out of my lips he was already gone, purchasing the smiling yellow trade.  I don’t know if he ever came back for more. It’s hard out here for a pimp. (and comics, apparently.)

     I read comics during my breaks and always get strange looks from customers and co workers alike. If three of my managers didn’t read comics, I doubt I’d still be working there. Maybe things will change.  Maybe…

     

  18. This is a wonderful (and frequently hilarious) article.  It isn’t a phenomenon I’ve experienced myself (in fact, the one time a stranger approached me about comics, it was a TGIFriday’s waitress squealing in delight over my Dark Phoenix action figure and loudly and excitedly telling me her plans to get a Dark Phoenix tattoo, so it’s sort of the opposite problem).  But I agree with everything you’ve said, and I hope those people eventually feel more confident in their love of comics.

  19. Every wednesday my roomate and I hit our local comic store, grab our books and unashamedly read them at a local bar.

    I’ve never had a problem with being outed. I’ve been out since I was 7.

    It is a lot of fun to be approached by randoms when they act all shifty about their habit.

  20. Great article.  It seems to me we’re on the right track.  At least people are talking about comics now.  Even five years ago it very rarely came up in common conversation.  I think people are starting to get it.  Hell the chain book stores now have "graphic novel" sections.  Yesterday I started a new class and my Prof started by "outing" himeself as a comic book geek, complained about the watchmen movie problems, and used a comic trade as an example of a specific type of book binding.  After, he asked us all to tell something about ourselves and four or five of us talked about our geeky loves whether it be comics, star trek, or buffy.  The class (book production)slogan so far has become "…and that person likes comics."  

    @hroughthebrush  something like that happened to too.  We were eating after a tiny convention and the waitress come up to us and said "Hi, um one of the guys in the kitchen wants to know where you got your toys?  Is thee a convention or sometihng?"  It was really funny.

  21. Ok so the secret hand shake is out gotcha!

     

    Great piece, totally loved it.  Yeah those MTV pricks should not have gotten rid of that guys comics, if a girl doesn;t like your comics than she doesn’t like who you are.

  22. Nice work Jim.  For some reason, I’m really hungry for barbeque.

  23. so awesome!!! so stealth!!

  24. I work as a barista in a friend’s café every now and then. I noticed that an office worker came in on casual Friday once wearing a green lantern shirt, than again with a batman shirt. The third time a saw the guy he had a flash shirt on.

     

    So I says to the guy; I says: Geoff Johns on flash rebirth, pretty cool, huh? I was totally blanked….

     

    This lead me to think comics readers on the whole are awkward weirdoes  

  25. Oh! And I have a spider-man quilt cover – the ladies find it ironic and hilarious when I get them home….

     

    At lest, I ASSUME they would… no I’m just kidding… or am i?

  26. Too bad I just can’t read in public. I tried reading Preacher in B&N and I just felt uncomfortable. I just have to be alone. I don’t really care if people see me with them (I’ll flip through issues on the bus ride home or whatever) but I just need some quiet or something to read. Maybe some earplugs are what I need. But then I still can’t join the secret society because I won’t hear anybody. Catch-22.

  27. I like reading in my home, so then I can react to the books without being looked at. I haven’t had any stealth encounters, except for someone on the bus hiding a copy of Watchmen under his work.

  28. I saw a guy at my local gym wearing a superman shirt (he, in fact, obsessively collects them) mocking a third party for reading comics.

    He saw no irony in this.  

  29. If you haven’t already watched the video JumpingJupiter posted above, take a minute to gander at it. It brightened up my day by roughly 43%.

  30. Thank you for bringing this to light.  I alalways read comics in public and have had many of the same experiences.  I frequently get funny looks, appearing to be of middle age, when I read my comics (even in a college town).  And it by and large surprises many, especially from employees in ethnic restaurants.  Especially in restaurants and pubs where they know I am an MD.  But more often than not, I am pleasantly surprised at how many people approach me with their like or disdain for the particular comic I am reading.

     There should never be any shame, read whatever you want, wherever.

    But then again, I’ve never felt embarrassed renting porn from the family video store.

  31. Combine the two and you’ve got Heavy Metal. It would be interesting to know how many people deny they read Heavy Metal but say they read comics. 🙂

  32. @chlop: I opened an issue of Heavy Metal at my work and I quickly closed it. I didnt hit any of the actual comic inside……just the very adult advertising they had in there….No wonder people in trenchcoats buy those at my work specifically. 🙂

  33. @WetWork – Exactly, sir. Not to go all Colter-ish, but the mainstream media makes us out to be man (or woman) children who refuse to grow up. Yet a 40-year-old professional gamer is acceptable? Explain that to me, God!

    @Jimski – Briliant work. Funny and poignant. It is odd how people always kind of shy away when you say something about comics in public.

    I recall one time looking over the graphic novel section in Borders. A customer and a clerk come up looking for Preacher. There’s maybe only one or two volumes on the shelves. The customer says, "thanks" and the clerk walks away. I say to the customer, "Great book. There’s a comic store down the road that’ll have the whole series." The guy’s reaction was like I just farted. "Yeah, OK. Thanks," he said, then grabbed the two trades and walked away. We were in the same bookstore looking at the same things, and he was kind of disgusted/embarassed to be seen there.