I’ve been reading comics for as long as I’ve been able to read, both in the newspaper and in booklets, which we called “funny books” when I was a kid. Some of them are called graphic novels now, which never would have flown when I was a boy. Dirty books were called graphic novels back then, and I’d have gotten into all sorts of trouble for even having one, much less reading it.
My interests ranged widely in those days. I liked Superman and The Phantom, but those were the only two superheroes that held my attention for long. Except for Mighty Mouse, who came into my black and white television every Saturday morning to “save the day”. Archie was a particular favorite because I had a crush on Betty, and Jughead reminded me of Maynard G. Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” on television.
And there were some fat special editions of Dennis the Menace that I wish I’d held on to. I’ve tried to locate them on the Internet, but they’re as hard to come by as old Phantom comics. So if you have any that you’re going to toss out, feel free to toss them my way.
In one of those Dennis sagas, he and his family went on vacation to Hawaii and in another to Yellowstone National Park. One Christmas they traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to visit Dennis’ grandfather. I had just finished reading the one about the Mitchell family’s trip to Washington, D.C., when President Kennedy was assassinated, and all of the government buildings that I saw on television during those several sad November days were already established in my mind. Because I’d just been there with the Mitchells.
Even though my education was definitely helped along by those travels with Dennis, my mother wanted me to step it up a notch or two. So she bought me copies of “Classics Illustrated” off the rack at Presley-Crook Pharmacy in downtown Palestine, Texas, whenever I went to the doctor, whose office was upstairs. But I found Dennis and Archie much more to my liking, so she packed them away in the top of a closet, where I found them a year or so later and steamed through them in short order. Those fine volumes, with some of the greatest stories in fiction splashed out on their pages, were pretty instrumental in my becoming a reader. In fact, I was so taken with Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” that it led me to read the actual novel. Which is, I suspect, what the editors of “Classics Illustrated” intended. Not to mention my mother.
Real books soon replaced funny books, but I’ve never broken the habit of consulting the comics sections in the papers every day. Mostly because I enjoy them but partly, I think, because they provide a sound anchorage in a world that is too often changing.
In a world full of turmoil, stress and frantic flux, the characters I read about every morning are pretty much ageless and static. Dennis the Menace first appeared in 1950, two years before I made my grand entrance. But, even so, he’s still 6 years old. And Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead have been married for 75 years, and look pretty much like they did in 1933. Their children, Alexander and Cookie, have been teenagers all that time. All of them are locked in a time warp that, in reality, would probably be downright monotonous. But, in the comics section, that stability is a comfort zone, a buffer between the imagination and the real world.
Even so, reality does sometime pop up, even in the funny papers.
There was, over several years, a heavy storyline in Funky Winkerbean, where a character lost her battle with cancer. Those strips are collected in a book called “Lisa’s Story” which I highly recommend.
Now, you might say that terminal cancer has no place in a comic strip. But I would disagree. If the comics are an artistic genre, then the artists who create them have as much right to infuse them with real-life situations as novelists, playwrights or soap opera scribblers. In fact, if they see their efforts as art, they have something of an obligation to do so.
So, if you’re a parent of a child that you want to become a lifelong reader, don’t put comics and graphic novels out of bounds. And if you’re a writer who wants to get better at plots and chararacterization buy them for yourself and pay attention.