Reading Comics, Reading for Pleasure & Why It Matters.
I’ve loved comics forever, but I’ve long given up on trying to get any street cred off of it. I was never well read enough to impress cute comic book nerds — they either liked me or they didn’t. What I read didn’t matter. Which turned out to be a good thing. Trying to impress people — especially guys — with how well read you are is a sad and sorry proposition. So even though I dated a well-known comic guy or two, I read for myself and was much happier in the process. That’s the thing I’ve always loved about comics and graphic novels: for me, it’s always been a one-on-one conversation. I never have New Yorker style banter about the comics I read. Never been in a book club, dissecting the plot and the ending of a graphic novel. Comics let me jump into worlds where I can stay submerged for hours: no need to come back up for the practical things like air and discourse.
I read a lot for work, but I’m always wanting to read more and read more for pleasure. When I became a JSK Fellow at Stanford, I was super excited about the opportunity to audit a few classes. The first one I signed up for was Scott Bukatman’s Reading Comics. From the first glance of the syllabus, he made me laugh as he described his teaching assistant as his Teen Sidekick.
In Scott’s class, I’ve read a lot of comics I might never have otherwise picked up. I loved Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! and everything we read by Chris Ware. It was a gift to look at the masters like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby through Scott’s thoughtful lectures and it was a blast to chat with Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, who Scott brought to campus. (You should totally check out Scott’s book, Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins.) I still don’t get R. Crumb, but I appreciated Scott’s thoughtful approach to his work.
But beyond any one comic was how much Scott’s class helped me remember that comics can and have done everything, from bring whole cities together with the common language and storyline of the Sunday funnies to helping individuals process history and trauma. Scott reminded us that:
“Comics allow you to peruse the world more visually than a novel would +more leisurely than a film could.”
When I got the JSK fellowship, our new director, Dawn Garcia, reminded us that the fellowship exists because journalism is too important to fend for itself. Reading is similarly too important — especially in an age when it’s constantly being squeezed by time and tech — to fend for itself. We have to keep finding ways to fall in love with reading all over again and share them. It’s easy to think as a writer, that you’re doing your part as a champion of reading. But “read my stuff” is not the same as “read this/read this/and man, you have to read this.” Passionate readers are the true guardians of the book galaxy and comic book readers are some of the most passionate readers around.
Reading for pleasure is a vital pursuit: it helps us make sense of the world in a private, meaningful way and it helps us imagine the world in ways that don’t yet exist.
Anyone who reads comics seriously knows that it is a genre created by outsiders who did more than imagine themselves in. They gave themselves powers and universes that superseded any we had ever seen on Earth. As a woman of color, comics push me to not internalize the challenges I face: from the microagressions of everyday racial slights and insults to the much grander scale manifestations of isms that I cannot simply wish away. I read a book like Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and I’m reminded that when I’m encouraged to play small as a “minority” the answer is always to go big, rather than go home. I read comics and I remember that exclams are energy inducing. We all have those moments when we need to find our inner Bam!
I’m looking forward to seeing what books Will Schwalbe has chosen to discuss in his upcoming, Books for Living. We need books for living, maybe now, more than ever; this moment we are in, as a country, feels more fraught than any I can remember in my lifetime. The great Annie Dillard, who during my undergraduate years, was something of a superhero to me, famously said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” As this year winds to a close, I am looking forward to 2017 where I’ll be spending at least some of my days, and some of my life, reading comics.