Thursday, June 23, 2005

On Comics Before Collecting (Part 1): Choosing

What was it to read comics before "collecting"? What was that experience of “picking your comic” at the drug store, the newsstand, 7-11?

It was, in the first instance, an experience of selection. This was before allowance, before careful mental calculations. A comic was a treat, and you could have only one.

But there were so many. Each cover touching some hidden place in your chest, like someone plucking a string. A giant green man bounding over the surface of an alien planet. A royal-looking man in a metal mask with a green cape. A man shooting webs like a spider—Spiderman! A family in blue uniforms. A man fighting robots. A boy on fire. Their poses filled with power. Each one setting off a vibration. Some uncomfortable flutter of excitement. What desire felt like before it met its object. Which one?

Choosing was a posture. Crouching on a dirty floor at the back of Neiman’s Pharmacy, spinning the rack slowly. Standing up to look at the comics on top and feeling the blood rush to your head. Or feeling the floor press into your knees as you study the covers laid out in an impossibly long row beneath the racks of magazines in a newsstand on Portage Avenue, where your dad stands above you, rooted for a moment in his own world. This was what it was to choose.

You pick them up in turn and look at the pictures inside.

It’s like opening a window that you fall into. Everything is tense with movement; nothing’s frozen. The boxes on the page are not flat but deep. They seem to go on and on. And you fall in. This is what you’re trying to do. To disappear into the boxes. To fall in and disappear. This is your wish.

But something stops you. Sometimes, the inside is not exactly like the outside. In this one, Spiderman is fighting a white wolf-man with a jewel on his throat, but only in a few boxes. The rest is of people talking. A bunch of spacemen, a man smoking a cigar, a girl with brown hair in an office. The green monster is on every page of that one. But there’s some other funny-looking man with green hair. And where’s the planet from the cover? There’s one with a man with a star on his front who throws his shield at the green man from the other comic. You think about this one very hard. Something’s not right here, and it’s caught you. Is the green man a bad guy? You go back to the other one. It looks different now, maybe this is the one. But no. You don’t like the silly man with green hair. You go back to the one with the shield throwing man. But there’s something about the pictures that isn’t right. They’re too scratchy.

Then you open the one with the blue family and it’s immediately different. There are more people here. The pictures and colors are just right. They don’t seem to be pictures at all. The boxes are filled with weight and the movement of bodies. There’s a tug in your chest, a dull brightness in your eye. You feel yourself falling.

The blue family lives in a big building like the ones downtown. They’ve just come home from a fight and their uniforms are torn up, but there are bad guys in there, waiting for them. A red demon with a blaster on his hand that shoots pink energy. A man in a green costume with lightening-lines on his face and a green staff that’s filled with power. Every page is stuffed with boxes overflowing with color and motion. Every page crackles with light and energy. The elastic man, the good monster made of orange rocks, the blue woman who disappears, the boy on fire.

You close the cover. You cannot read much yet. Someone will sit beside you and read this to you. There’s a story here, and you want to know what happens.

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