Michael Davis is unavailable this week for reasons you would never believe. That leaves me, David (or James, if that’s your preference) Rhoades, his able-minded but bulky nerd-bodied apprentice, a chance to share with this fine online community.
It’s a rare occasion that leaves me able to write to you all. In addition to being an apprentice, I’m a full-time English major at UCLA, finishing up my last few units before graduation. As you can imagine, my brain is in a constant swirl of art instruction from Michael, the major works of Shakespeare, books of the Hebrew Bible, and the occasional work of experimental fiction by an author whose name is difficult to pronounce or spell (but whose work is generally awesome).
But every once in a great while, during the school year, I get to read comics again.
And really, while more traditional academic types might frown upon classic literature’s unkempt, unshaven younger brother, I owe my love of reading to comics. Heck, like so many others, I owe my ability to read to comics. I’m actually a third-generation fan. Way back in the pre-modern era known as the 1960s, my father was a tiny little guy with severe asthma and a propensity to get into trouble rather than learning. My grandfather was a stern disciplinarian, however, who understood obstacles as things that someone beat to death barehanded until they weren’t obstacles anymore (fun story: my grandfather’s way of dealing with my dad’s severe asthma was to wake up him at four-thirty in the morning daily and force him to run until he learned to thrive on less air). Despite Grandpa’s failure to connect with my dad in ways that weren’t designed to make him suffer, one thing Grandpa did right was figure out a way for my dad to enjoy reading: he bought him comics. He bought him issues of Thor, Spider-Man, Superman, and my dad’s personal favorite, Captain America. My grandfather hoped to get my dad started on reading the “simple stuff”, and planned to wean him off until my dad was speeding through Russian classics on the weekends. Funny enough, my grandfather secretly read some of these comics when he thought nobody was looking. While my dad eventually formed a love for prose novels that continues to this day, to my grandparents’ horror, he also developed a lifelong love for comics.
I love that story. My dad told me that story a few dozen times when we would buy comics together on Wednesdays, and when he was teaching me how to read using the Dark Knight Returns.
A unique side effect of my third-generation, comics-based upbringing is that I actually didn’t read all that many “EXTREME/RADICAL/POUCHES/GIGANTIC GUNS/MORE POUCHES” nineties comics. When I told my dad I wanted to read comics, he bought me the stuff he liked, which coincidentally was the best superhero stuff that Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and Curt Swan had to offer. While I’m not all that nostalgic about the comics I read as a little kid, if I were nostalgic, I’d probably sound more like a fifty-year old than a guy in his early twenties. Fortunately, this is one way for me to connect with my dad, just like it was for him with my grandfather. When people talk about the connection that fans of comics form with each other, what we usually think of is an immediate connection with the people who are reading comics with us today. Current fans can connect with current fans over the books they’re both reading. It’s great. It’s ninety percent of the beauty of conventions: making new friends whose stories are vastly different but strangely similar to your own. But that connection doesn’t just apply spatially – it applies through history. By reading the same comics my dad read when he was my age, the same comics that my grandfather read, I connect with them both in ways that’s pretty difficult to do over a dinner table or in a conversation.
I’ll be honest — it’s pretty difficult for me to hold a long conversation with either my grandfather or my father. They’re both incredibly intelligent guys, but all of us have wildly different views on how the world operates. What makes it worse is since I’m in my twenties, it’s going to be biologically impossible for elders in my family to prove I’m wrong (especially when I’m really wrong), at least until I’m 29 and admit that I’ve been stubborn for fifteen years.
But with comics, I have a chance to understand my dad a little bit. I understand where his sense of honor or duty or sacrifice comes from, because I’ve read the same Captain America issues, or the issue where Batman chooses for the millionth time to risk suffering to himself and others because there’s a line that can’t be crossed. While I may not understand how he applies it today, I understand him just a little bit more.
It’s cheesy, but comics have become an important part of how my relationship with my dad and my grandfather functions. And as I begin work in the comics industry, that’s what I want to bring to the table: stories that can bring people together through common experience. I want to write stories that are strange, wild, new, but at the same time, vaguely similar to our own stories. And really, that’s what all great capital A “Art” does, right?
It’s a tall order, and I may not always reach that bar every time I sit at my computer, but it’s where I’m planning to go.
Keep reading comics, and if you are so inclined, follow me on Twitter at @Rhoadey!