Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I am a female comic book reader.


Earlier today I saw this tweet and starting thinking about how I started reading comics.

There was no comic book store in my town.  The local drug store (think early-mid century soda fountain style drug store) sold some comics next to the magazines.  The local independent toy store might have had a comic rack, but I don't remember.  So I did not grow up with the experience of riding my bike to the local comic book store, meeting my friends there, and talking about our fan theories.  On top of that, gender stereotypes were pretty solid in my upper-middle-class suburban town.  I remember how weird some of my girlfriends thought it was when I stayed after school to play Magic cards with a few of my band friends (including the man I am now in a relationship with).  And the reception a few of my friends got when they started the high school anime club.  You could be into these things, but you didn't advertise it, especially if you were female.

Despite this, my mom was always very supportive of my hobbies.  Even when she didn't understand them - like my addiction to fantasy, such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, while she preferred realistic stories that didn't have made up words littering the pages.  If it wasn't for her, I can't say I would have started reading comics, at least not before I became an adult and moved out.

When I was seven years old, in second grade, a DC published the Death of Superman.  I don't know if he requested it or if she learned about its publication and thought it would be a nice thing to give him, but my mom went to the store and bought my cousin a copy of Superman vol. 2 #75, where Doomsday kills Superman.  I still remember that cover, and how protective he was of the book, believing that if he took good care of it, it would some day be worth a lot of money.

While my mom was at the store she also picked up a Barbie comic book for me.  I definitely had my girly moments as a child, and I loved my Barbie dolls, who were usually horse trainers/stunt riders with the circus and spent a lot of time at the beach getting discovered by movie studios.  The Barbie comics told short stories, usually of Barbie saving an animal or trying something new with her friends, and had fan letters in the back written by little girls.  I loved it and re-read it until the cover fell off.

Eventually my cousin forgot his precious comic on the floor of his bedroom, stepped on it, and tore the cover.  Only then did he let me read it.  He never asked for additional issues to finish the story or explore new characters.  But I asked for more Barbie comics.  I think I eventually had a collection of five books, all well-read with loose covers.

I spent the rest of my childhood reading a variety of books, magazines, and comics.  I would read the funny pages every Sunday and most weekdays.  I devoured my sister's copies of Nintendo Power and Disney Adventures, which contained comics.  And I would re-read my mom's Calvin & Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book regularly.

We never had cable while I was growing up, so it wasn't until I was 13 or 14 that I really learned about Sailor Moon.  I had a vague notion of who she was, her friends' names, and that she was a super hero, but I didn't know the specifics of the show.  My best friend had taped every episode of the first two seasons, in order, off the USA network and brought them out at one of our slumber parties.  I was hooked, and she happily lent me the rest of her videos to take home.  On subsequent visits to her house, she showed me her collections of stickers, magazine art, and comics her father had brought back from a business trip to France (which she couldn't read, but loved the artwork).

That was how I learned that the TV show was based on a manga series and I needed to know where I could find those books.  My mom suggested a comic book store a few towns over, and offered to take me.  Like I said, if it wasn't for her, I'm not sure how I would have developed as a comic reader.

She took my sister and me to the store that summer.  As we stood there, overwhelmed by all the colorful comic covers and action figures decorating the shelves, the man behind the counter asked us if we were looking for anything in particular.  I replied, "Sailor Moon?" and he pointed us towards to shelf of new releases.  The manga were at the beginning of a reprint, unknown to me, and the shelf had the first four issues available.  I remembered my Barbie comics, which didn't have long story arcs spread over multiple issues (at least, I don't remember stories across issues), and assumed most comics followed a similar format (oh, how wrong I was), so we each selected an issue based on how much we liked the artwork.

After I learned the Sailor Moon manga was a long story that continued across issues, I was concerned about catching up on the issues I had missed.  The store didn't have many back issues, and we only made sporadic trips every couple of months.  The men who worked at the store were always very friendly, but I was too shy to ask many questions, believing that I should already know what I was looking for (this belief still affects me today, and has made being a grad student, where I'm supposed to ask questions and not already know everything, really hard).  But somehow the owner knew what I needed, and suggested I look at the shelves where they stored the manga graphic novels.  There I found the volumes of Sailor Moon published by Mixx Manga/Tokyo Pop.

Other than a few borrowed copies of my friends' manga, like Slayers and Cardcaptor Sakura, I didn't really branch out until I got to grad school and became a big fan of zombies.

I learned about the Walking Dead Compendium about a year after its release, shortly before the TV show started, and received it for Christmas shortly after.  My mom went to the comic book store where she had taken me as a teenager, and asked them to special order it when she found it wasn't in stock.

Reading that book made me feel like I finally had the credentials to explore other comics.  The concept of the "fake geek girl" can be a real mindfuck when you already experience social anxiety and feel like you don't deserve the space you occupy.  I have never been called out by anyone in a comic book store to defend my interests or justify my presence there, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened to other female comic book fans.

With this newfound confidence, I started reading more Marvel and independent comic books.  I bought Kelly Sue DeConnick's Captain Marvel, copies of Journey into Mystery Featuring Sif, and a bunch of Thor TPBs.  I started reading the Brian Wood X-Men run featuring the all-female team, and I picked up the new Ms. Marvel on the day it was released.  When I was visiting my parents, I went into the old comic book store and bought the Rat Queens TPB.  I ended up having a great conversation with one of the men who was working, and he suggested I try out Saga and Coffin Hill.  I have a sporadic Marvel Unlimited subscription, and a digital copy of Lumberjanes #1.  And I have new TPBs of Wonder Woman and Batgirl, and my eye on Red Sonja (yay Gail Simone!)  And there is a new Princess Leia comic being released.

I've noticed a trend in the comics I choose - while I love Thor and Iron Man and Cap and Deadpool, the vast majority of the comics I read feature female leads.

And I am lucky... lucky that I am reading comics at a time when there are female-centric comics to choose from, and lucky that every experience I've had with comics has been a positive one.  I have never been mistreated inside a comic book store.  Or at my recent trip to Comic Con.  I have a very limited experience with comic book stores, having only visited three or four in my life, but of the three that I have made repeat trips to, two of which are in the city where I now live, all have been female friendly.  I have observed the staff interacting with other female customers, and no one seems uncomfortable or unwelcome, and the interactions can usually be described as downright enthusiastic as those involved get to share and learn about the comics they love.  I have never been chastised or belittled for asking questions, and am always greeted warmly when I enter the store.

I am lucky.  I wish everyone's experience with comics could be like mine.

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