Why I spent so much time reading comics this past decade

This writing is meant to accompany a post of my favourite comics of the 2010s. I wrote this several weeks ago, but worked up the courage to make it public today.

Why I spent so much time reading comics this past decade

Reading comics has been a comforting and familiar ritual to me since childhood. As a kid, youngest of 3 siblings in a loud family, I used to go off on my own and read Mad Magazine, Archie, Dennis the Menace, Wee Pals, and other classic paperbacks that my mom’s ex-boyfriend gave me among other books. Not that those are still favourites, but I enjoyed them, being able to move through the pages, back and forth, at my own pace, and having a glimpse into other worlds that someone had created. It felt like magic. Kids comics are amazing now, cartoonists like Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol, Hope Larson, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Aaron Renier, John Martz, Anouk Ricard, Jen Wang, and so many other creators. I would feel feel a bit jealous of kids, if not for the fact that I still read kids and YA comics regularly. They have some of the best stories.

Growing up, many weekends I would stay with my dad in his small apartment, and he would give me a few dollars to go downstairs to buy Archie comics at the 7-Eleven. I would spend hours recopying the characters into surreal landscapes and fashionable outfits at my dad’s drafting table made up of two large wood and metal folding tables pushed together to form a big square. He would sit on his side of the table and work on hand carving wax models for casting jewelry, or toy designs, and I would sit across from him and do my work, and we’d listen to CBC radio programs for hours. Every Saturday morning at my dad’s apartment, I would read the cartoon section of the newspaper at breakfast. On Saturdays, the comics were in colour and even though I didn’t necessarily get or like the dialogue, I loved looking at the characters and art styles. I’m thankful that my dad never had a television around, and that routine became so comfortable. I still draw a lot of inspiration from comics and listen to podcasts while working.

On an even more personal note, comics, zines, and graphic novels have helped me survive. It might sound hyperbolic or overly sentimental, but it’s true. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for a couple decades now, and reading the work of Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, Eleanor Davis, Marjane Satrapi, Julie Doucet, Geneviève Castrée, Jen Woodall, Tara Booth, Summer Pierre, Tom Hart, Jeffrey Brown, John Porcellino and many other comics that deal with everyday experiences have helped me feel less alone and better understand myself and others. Comics can convey emotions and experiences in a way that is impossible to capture in prose, especially with depictions of mental illness (visual metaphors, line tension, detail, colour, subtle visual clues, the relationship between words and images, the gaps, and especially conveying the weight or numbness of mental illness like depression). For many years, I didn’t know what was wrong with me and was too ashamed to ask for help. My mom was a sole-support parent who worked really hard to raise us, and to her, depression and anxiety were problems that she could just never afford to “believe in” because she had to pay the rent.

As a kid and in my early teens in Winnipeg, I didn’t know a lot of other people who read comics and the bookstore/library selection was really limited to either superhero comics, mostly written by cis white men, or indie/underground comix, written by cis white men. Anything else wasn’t available at the public library or was out of my budget, overpriced at my local comics shop. No one in my family was interested in comics. They’re still not. When I was in my late teens, I was so excited about this one book of interviews that I found called In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists by Todd Hignite. In that book, I remember reading that a cartoonist Barney Steel influenced the style of either Robert Crumb or Charles Burns. The interviews were all with male cartoonists who I really admired at the time. I immediately ordered single issues of Steel’s Armageddon comix #1-3 (1970s) off of eBay. Then I spent the next year hiding them from my mom until I moved out, terrified that she would find them and think I was a weirdo; they were pornographic and weirdly right wing and libertarian.

I think a lot of the underground comix of the late 1960s/70s were really appealing to me because like a lot of teenagers, I felt misunderstood and like an outcast, and they were so raw and real. I thought outsiders who were nostalgic about the past and skeptical about the future were romantic and that I was a part of their club, because that was how I felt at the time, not helped by watching Terry Zwigoff’s great documentary Crumb. I also loved grotesque aesthetics because I hated being perceived as a nice Jewish girl with a high-pitched voice, and it made me feel like I had a dark secret that made me not so nice. But the depiction of women in a lot of those comix and seeing only the perspective of men…wasn’t the healthiest for me. There are so many amazing comix by women, but I didn’t know where to find them; a recently published anthology that collects a lot of these comix is The Complete Wimmen’s Comix edited by Trina Robbins. Growing up, I mostly knew the artwork of men, and at some point, started equating being a genius with being a man; it’s something that naturally happens to girls in a sexist culture. This didn’t make me very happy about being a girl, and because of it, I started unconsciously reading less books by women in general, for years. Like I wrote in a diary comic I posted to Instagram recently, I saw that girls were treated like objects and events and were the inspiration for other people’s stories. Eventually, when I sought out work made by women, I started feeling better about myself.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I came across comics where other women were telling personal stories that could be grotesque and dealt with themes like sexuality, depression, racism, and sexism that weren’t often talked about in the community I knew growing up. Maybe they were somewhere around Winnipeg, but I couldn’t see them. Reading narratives by women helped me reflect on my own experiences as a woman, understand that I was a feminist, and acknowledge some of the frustrations that I previously couldn’t articulate about how I was treated and perceived for being a woman. In my twenties, I read comics like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Skim by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Long Red Hair by Meags Fitzgerald, and Kiss & Tell by MariNaomi that helped me think about queerness and reflect on my own feelings of queerness, like pansexuality and feeling non-binary, although I hardly spoke about them. More recent YA and kids comics like Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman, and Tomboy by Liz Prince are beautiful narratives that are probably helping a lot of kids and teens feel more comfortable being themselves in an increasingly tense and polarized political climate across the world.

Escaping into speculative, dark, and surreal comics helped me as well. I could find some beauty in those worlds when I was otherwise really numb, in the work of Jim Woodring, Tove Jansson (Moomin!), Renée French, Lilli Carré, Charles Burns, Ron Regé, Richard Sala, Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët, Peter Blegvad, Daniel Clowes, Tobias Tak, and Dame Darcy (Meat Cake!). That might seem like a strange thing to say about some of them, like Charles Burns’ comics that are horror spoofs of classic romance and sci-fi comics, often grotesque and satirical. Although many of these narratives are often cynical, wary of cultural norms, capitalism, consumerism, greed, vanity, and so on, there seems to be an underlying love of humanity and appreciation of the absurdity of life, or at least that’s the impression I always had. I wanted to keep living so I could keep reading and see what was next. That’s also why I’ve always liked having to-be-read book piles around, because it feels like nothing can happen when I have so many books to read. Some of the earliest graphic novels I read were Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Sandman, American Splendor, and Love and Rockets, and all of them made me want to keep reading. I started trying to draw and make comics regularly in my late teens and early 20s. Although I gave that up for several years while in university for English and then library school, I never stopped drawing late at night and reading comics. I have since tried making comics and illustration zines and continue to draw more regularly.  Making art helps me keep going. One of the best feelings I know is sharing art that people connect with, even if it’s just one person. And even if it’s awful, just the act of someone creating something that wasn’t there before feels like casting a spell to me. And for comics, you’re creating whole worlds. It’s like a really laborious form of magic.

About storytelling in comics

Comics offer a unique and generous glimpse into so many different worlds and experiences. They are generous because they take so long to create, are often inhaled by readers in a couple of hours, and comics creators are relatively paid so little for all their time and labour. Comics are made with a lot of love because cartoonists are in love with the medium and its potential— you’d have to be to give so much time and effort with such unreliable outcomes. Because comics are such a hybrid and difficult to define medium and can be about anything, they invite many different forms, like woodcut and papercut illustrations, watercolour, gouache, digital, pen and ink, collage… and creators can experiment and continually push boundaries. But I can’t think of any set rules in comics, only historical conventions and diverse ways of achieving certain effects of storytelling and art. Comics creators can make work that is personal in the way that only comics can be, as a mixture of styles, words and images, or images that form a narrative or impression. Even comics that are non-autobiographical can reveal a lot about their creators or the process of their creation. Personal and stylistically unique narratives linger and have shaken me out of my comfort level or a delusion many times.

Comics are a way for people who are quiet and marginalized to speak loudly and without censorship. They are an accessible way for people to share difficult experiences, like struggles with mental or physical illness, trauma, and grief. A lot of people find their voice and community through comics. Because of all these reasons, I read comics and believe that they should be more accessible. The mainstream industry should be more inclusive of marginalized creators and women; this is not a debate and never should have been. Elementary schools and high schools should include more programs for creating comics in the curriculum like writing is taught. Those who read or create comics know their value, but a lot of people haven’t had access to them or haven’t seen themselves represented, and as a result they have little interest in comics. Over the years, having worked in libraries and bookstores, I’ve seen this so many times. I’ve been told that comics are really just for kids, more like bad toys than “literature”, are just men’s stories, and many other negative connotations. In recent years, comics readership and the industry has blossomed, especially within kids and YA narratives, and because of an effort to increase diversity in indie and mainstream publishing and hiring. I also think the way comics are catalogued, organized, and understood in large library systems and bookstores will continue to change and improve. I’ve co-written a blog post on traditional comics classification, how it’s changed, and the politics of comics librarianship on the Canada Comics Open Library (CCOL) blog if you’d like to know more. There is a widespread demand for making comics more accessible and advocating for comics in libraries and schools, and many librarians are working towards these efforts; the formation of the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table, for example. I wish I could afford an ALA membership just to take part in this round table alone.

Through comics, history is alive. Personal bias or the creator’s presence is often acknowledged in non-fiction works. You can see their hand in the production of the drawings, line quality, or other creative and storytelling devices in the narrative. You can imagine the person who has created the comic. I think this makes comics more honest through their self-conscious unreliability. Non-fiction comics, like the war journalism comics of Joe Sacco, are often told in first person by their creators. Local histories can be preserved through indie comics and zines, different and diverse perspectives documented that have traditionally been left out of the history textbooks. We remember personal and visual stories. I am sure that these points aren’t shocking to comics readers. I learned a lot about comics through reading, when I studied comics in university, a great seminar course at the University of Winnipeg, and through conversations with other comics readers and creators. There is so much comics scholarship and writing that speaks to these and many other points connecting comics with culture, politics, medicine (Graphic Medicine), art conventions, and so much more. There are so many possibilities in comics. Comics are fascinating and complex narratives, art objects, and cultural artifacts. And maybe most importantly, they spread a lot of joy.

For all these reasons and more, I have spent the last decade reading comics. And if you are new to comics, I hope that you will give them a try this next decade and send me some recommendations 🙂