Why I read comics: a tale in three books

I read Frank Miller before Mark Twain. I wasn’t interested in books. And when I was 10 or 11, my cousin introduced me to Daredevil and comic books. And I was hooked. The art was incredible and the Daredevil stories that Miller was telling were dark, gritty, and soul searching, ultimately leading the “Born Again” arc, which has come to be known as one of the best comic stories of all time. The early to mid-1980s were a stomping grounds for great stories and storytellers with Chris Claremont writing X-Men, Wolverine getting his own origin story, the Avengers line-ups changing, and every Marvel hero and villain coming together in “Secret Wars.” We would spend hours in Alternate Worlds comic shop pouring over back issues our favorite stories. When I go back and read any of those stories now, it’s like finding a time machine.

Frank Miller (writer) and David Mazzucchelli (artist) told one of my favorite comic book stories of all time with Daredevil “Born Again,” one of the stories that got me hooked on comics.

Being introduced to comic books with all those creators doing some of their best work is like being introduced to basketball by watching Michael Jordan with the Bulls or baseball with Ken Griffey, Jr. with the Mariners, or football with Barry Sanders with the Lions or Ed Reed with the Ravens.

But then life happens. I got a skateboard, and then a driver’s license, a job, college, became an English and Philosophy student, read books that didn’t have pictures, more jobs, kids, and comics had long fallen off the radar screen. I wasn’t even thinking about comic books. And then I read a Book Riot review that called Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye one of the best books (not comic books, books) they read in all of 2013. And I was intrigued.

I was working in DC and on my drive home, I stopped into Third Eye Comics in Annapolis. I am not exaggerating when I say that my thinking on reading, on art, on literature, on life, was changed, or at least began to change after that visit. So, dear reader, enter comic book stores at your own risk.

Fraction’s Hawkeye is about a normal guy, Clint Barton, during his off time, when he’s not an Avenger. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, it’s great storytelling, there is a stray dog that digs pizza–it’s not at all what I remembered comics being like, and I had to re-assess what kind of stories comics told. So I talked to the folks at Third Eye and I grabbed other stuff Fraction had written. And then other off-color, different takes on superhero stories. And then independent books, original graphic novels, you name it.

One of the books that Torma at Third Eye put in my hand was Jason Aaron‘s “Thor: God of Thunder – God Butcher.”And I remember thinking, and saying, I liked Thor as an Avenger, but I didn’t really dig reading him as a solo character. Torma explained it as a different, way more metal take on Thor, and with some of the other books I was reading, thought I would like it. I didn’t realize how much my mind or my storytelling world was going to blow up.

Aaron took a character that people had heard of, with a back story fans knew, and he went cosmic–he went trouncing through space and time; he stripped Thor of his worthiness to wield his hammer; he gave the Thor mantel to a female character and Aaron made me not only care about, but be totally invested in characters and a story that I didn’t know I wanted to read. As I went through “War of the Realms” and then read the final issue of King Thor, as Aaron wrapped things up, as a writer, reader, creative person, I got more than a little choked up.

In the (artist) Mike Del Mundo variant to the final issue of Jason Aaron’s Thor run, all the characters watch over the writer’s shoulders to see how the story is going to turn out and what fate awaits them. It’s probably my favorite comic book cover ever and will have an influence into a tattoo sleeve I am working on for my left arm.

Aaron’s Thor story took him seven years and 100-ish issues to tell. In a letter he wrote at the end of the last issue, he said:

“I put a lot of myself in those 100 issues. A lot of who I was growing up, playing alone in the woods of the deep South, breathing in stories like the purest of pine-scented oxygen, dreaming my way in the roundabout direction of the life I wanted. And a lot of who I became when I grew up, lost religion, almost lost myself, moved away, found love, found fatherhood, found the man I wanted to be, a man I’m still working to more fully realize every day… Thor helped with that. Thor literally changed my life. And I just hope I returned the favor in some way that mattered.”

That’s the kind of story I want to read or see. Whether a novel, non-fiction, poetry, comic book or graphic novel, movie, play–a story that incorporates its creators dreams, aspirations, short-comings, longings and strivings, and has somehow changed and shaped that person. Give me that. Tell me that story.

I have found those stories in comic books first, and they got me interested in other stories. Miller, Fraction, and Aaron showed me characters I didn’t know I was going to care about, and have made them iconic in my mind when I think about mythology, storytelling, and more.

There are so many more writers and artists and books I could add to that list, and many I haven’t read yet. But in finishing Aaron’s Thor, it got me thinking, and looking back, and loving comic books all over again.

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