Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Two: Zot! by Scott McCloud

Before Scott McCloud became famous for Understanding Comics he was a little known comics creator with only one real professional credit to his name. Zot! was originally a ten-issue full color series published by Eclipse Comics in 1984-85. It went on hiatus for a brief period and returned as a black and white book with issue #11 and continued to be published in this format until it finally ended with issue #36.

The hiatus was due to low sales of the original ten issues. I'm sad to say I was part of the problem at the time.

The early 80's featured an explosion on new comics coming out of the creation of Direct Market Distribution. After the dominance of Marvel and DC comics being the only comics available on the racks (with a few exceptions to this generality), it was a time of great excitement in the world of comics. It seemed like there was suddenly a tremendous wealth of new ideas and concepts available. In retrospect, much of what came out during this period were variations on the same superhero, science-fiction and fantasy tropes that had always existed in comics. But to a lot of us it felt very fresh (and quite honestly, most of the books I plan on talking about in upcoming blogs come from this time period).

At the time I didn't have regular access to a comic book store (not counting the once in a blue moon trip to Pittsburgh), and Direct Market books were not available on the newsstand. There were days of panic when I would read about some cool new comic and wonder if I would ever actually see it. I started a subscription service through Mile High Comics in Colorado and would put in a monthly order for comics. Once a month a box of joy would arrive.

Even with this service I wasn't as adventurous with new titles as I could have been. Maybe if I had been going to a comics shop regularly and had had the opportunity to browse titles before purchasing them I would have tried a wider variety of titles. As it was, most of what I subscribed to were the DC titles that had gone Direct Sales only (Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes, Infinity Inc.), and some of Marvel's Epic line of creator-owned titles. There were a few others, but these were usually only added after I had seen them at a convention or a trip into Pittsburgh (I shopped at Eide's and the nascent Phantom of the Attic whenever I made the trip).

I had seen Zot! advertised in some of the books I read (probably DNAgents, a superhero book from the same publisher), but I pretty much ignored it, for a lot of the very reasons that I eventually came to love it for. Part of the excitement of the Direct Market was that the Comics Code Authority held no sway over the content of these books. They were able to have more sophisticated and adult content (in theory, anyway). This was well before the entire Grim and Gritty fad that took over comics by the late 80's, but still, at the time the image of the character Zot just didn't grab me. It was too clean, too innocent looking, too juvenile for me when what I was looking for more adult than the mainstream comics I had been reading. It looked helplessly retro and as a result I ignored it.

The design of Zot himself immediately brings to mind the original Captain Marvel from the 1940's (SHAZAM, as he is more and more frequently being referred to). The red costume with a yellow lightning bolt on the chest has an iconic look to it (though Zot's lightning bolt is stylized to resemble a backwards Z). The squinty eyes of both characters sealed the similarity. McCloud says in one of the issues that this wasn't intentional and he only realized it after the fact. Given the lack of access to comics from the 40's at that time it's possible that while Scott had probably seen some images of C.C. Beck's art it probably wasn't just lying around. 

The other piece of artistic influence was the design of Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese Manga. Originally Zot was intended to be a robot (you can see the design in Zot! #8).

Over time I grew more adventurous and had read some great reviews of Zot! Sometime between the publication of the last color issue and the first black and white one I found the entire first ten-issue run at a pretty decent price (I seem to remember this being at a convention, but I couldn't tell you which one... It could as easily have been at Eide's or Phantom). I took the plunge and bought all of them.

Quite simply, I fell in love with the book. It was, as I had thought, helplessly retro. But it also maintained an incredible sense of hope for the future. It was fun! At a time when superheroes were starting down a dark trail (a trail I followed and thoroughly enjoyed at the time), Zot! was a palate-cleansing breath of fresh air and a renewal of wonder.

McCloud sums up his intent in an author's note in issue #1; “Welcome to Zot! no. 1, home of one of the most incorrigibly happy heroes you'll ever meet.” He goes on to say, “So that's the spirit that Zot carries inside him, the spirit of unyielding and irrational hope.”

From its inception Zot! has been at odds with the prevailing trends of the superhero genre. But for me, that is exactly what makes it stand out.

I don't want to belabor the plot points, but the essence is this... Thirteen year old Jenny Weaver has just moved to a new town with her brother Butch after her mother and father's divorce. She's feeling alone and depressed and friendless in her new middle American suburban home. Suddenly, a portal opens in mid-air and Zot flies through being chased by deadly robots. After Zot defeats the robots he takes Jenny and Butch through the portal to his world. It's the wardrobe of Narnia, or Alice's rabbit hole, one of the classic tropes of the fairy tale. Every child has fantasized about leaving this boring world behind and going to another place full of magic, wonder and adventure. Of course, there's always danger as well.

In Zot's world it is perpetually 1965, an era that looked forward to a utopian science fiction future. It's bright and shiny and clean and filled with technological marvels. The initial story line involved the MacGuffin of the search for a golden key that would open a plain wooden door that hung mysteriously in space (and the reveal of what lay behind it when it was opened was a genuine laugh-out-loud moment for me). Along the way there were chase scenes and fights with villains and mayhem involving monkeys. But the plot was always secondary to the characters for me.

McCloud later revealed that he based the personalities of the four main characters on the four main Personality Types in Jungian Psychology. Zot was Intuition. Jenny was Feeling. Butch was Sensation and the robot butler Peabody was Thinking. It was a shorthand, but it gave McCloud a firm base as to how the characters would react to any given situation. Given my interest in Jungian psychology at the time, and the academic work I did with the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (my master's thesis used that test), I'm surprised I didn't pick up on this at the time.


Even in this Utopian vision of the retro-future of 1965 there were villains, and Zot's villains were wonderful. I read someplace that each of them can seen through the lens of some vision of the future gone horribly awry. I think that's probably true, but I don't want to analyze that here (this is already going on too long).

There is the madman Dekko, an artist who over time replaced most of his body with robot parts as a work of art and an attempt at perfection. His headgear is based on the Art Deco design of the Chrysler building.

Dr. Ignatius Rumboult Bellows, a steampunk villain years before that term had been invented.

The maddening, backward-thinking cult called the De-evolutionaries (With apologies to DEVO, this group seems to have come into actual existence and have an inordinate amount of influence on politics these days).

The Blotch, a gangster who attempts to control the world through media and advertising.

And the main villain of the piece, 9-Jack-9. A truly chilling assassin with no true physical form, he exists as information on the interconnected electronic devices and computers of his world.

I saw the original art for this at a Con in Philadelphia
sometime around 1993. Way out of my price range, but
man, would I love to own this.

When Zot! returned as a black and white series with #11 I was there and waiting. The art style changed somewhat to accommodate the new format. Whereas before McCloud left open areas in his art to allow color to fill in the information, the new series relied more on intricate linework, shading and cross-hatching. For me, as a fan of black and white artwork, it became more solid. Scott's skill as an artist progressed, and he seemed to get better with each issue (by his own admission, the more detailed the work became, the slower he was. Many of the later issues of the series came out late). 

It was during this time that the influence of Japanese Manga became more apparent. Having not been exposed to very much Manga at that point I didn't realize that this is where a lot of what he was doing came from. Some of the techniques he mentions in Understanding Comics, such as the Masking effect of iconic characters played against more realistically rendered backgrounds, were on full display here. He also experimented with different kinds of panel-to-panel transitions than American comics typically did. This was another aspect of comics he talked about in Understanding Comics.

In fact, upon rereading Zot! after Understanding Comics it is easy to see that McCloud was working with many of the same ideas even then. I recently read an interview with Scott that appeared in issue #18 of the magazine Comics Interview in 1984. It is clear that even though Understanding Comics was still nine years away, McCloud was already developing the themes that would eventually become that work.

During the last story arc of Zot! the book took a very different direction than what we had previously seen, and in many ways became a very different story. Collectively known as the “Earth Stories” these issues turned the premise of the series on its head. Instead of Jenny and Butch visiting a world of marvels, Zot was trapped in their mundane world. It was the story of this optimistic outsider, a hero in his own world, forced to live life as a normal teenager. Zot, and the reader, meet Jenny's circle of friends and we get to know them. These stories are heartfelt portraits of everyday people dealing with real life issues. In one amazing issue Jenny's best friend Terry deals with the realization that she is a lesbian. This was at a time when the idea of an openly gay character in comics was still fairly taboo. The topic was treated with respect and empathy and not a trace of sensationalism. Another issue, nominated for an Eisner Award, featured Zot and Jenny having a long conversation about their relationship and whether or not they old enough to be ready to have sex. That's it... a conversation. No supervillains. Nothing blowing up. Just two teens talking openly and lovingly to each other about a difficult topic. It was beautiful.

McCloud used this image as the cover for the Black and White collection.
He felt this summed up the book better than any other single image.

In the course of doing some research for this blog I found a website review of the black and white Zot! that was a little dismissive of these issues. It referred to Zot! as an “American Manga Romance Comic” and went so far as to refer to it as “Twee.” It was obvious from the tone that the reviewer did not see these as good things. It is a Romance comic. And an action-filled superhero comic. It can also be really funny, and sad, and frightening. It's like life that way.

As I've said in previous posts, McCloud was one of the people we sent copies of Grey Legacy to, and Scott always responded in an encouraging and positive way. I've met him a couple of times and in person he has always been friendly and outgoing.

Unfortunately, right now Zot! isn't in print. There was an expensive color collection of the first ten issues published in the 90's that you may be able to find on Ebay. You can probably track down the original issues that way as well. As of this writing my store has a complete set of them on sale, though that may change tomorrow. The black and white issues were collected into one giant trade paperback a couple of years ago at the great price of $25. It's unfortunately out of print at the moment as well. I found four remaindered copies of it at a Half Price Books a couple of years ago for $4.99 each. I bought one as a gift and have been kicking myself ever since for not grabbing the other three just to have to give to people.

Zot! ended up being one of my all-time favorite books. I'm sure parts of it are dated now, and if you prefer your superheroes more in dark, grim and gritty style, then this probably won't be your thing at all. But if you want to have fun, to feel some optimism and hope, to be reminded of youthful romance, to experience a moment when the future was believed to be bright and shiny (and maybe to be reminded that it still should be), then please, find copies of Zot! and enjoy.

McCloud did a new Zot! story available exclusively on his website a few years ago. You can read more about Zot!, McCloud, Understanding Comics, and whole bunch of other stuff he does at www.scottmccloud.com.

Zot! and all other characters and images are copyright Scott McCloud.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Favorite Comics Part One

I realized recently that as much as I talk about comics in my day-to-day life (there are times I feel like that's all I talk about), I haven't really blogged about specific ones very much. I don't feel much of a need to offer opinions or reviews of current comics. There's a lot of that already available out there, and it's a big part of what I do at Phantom every day. I want to talk about some of my all-time favorite books.

I should preface this by saying that in general I have a tough time answering the question, “What's your favorite (fill in the blank)?” Music, movie, TV show... whatever. I have consumed a lot of media over the years, and I have a wide variety of tastes and moods, and my answer changes depending on the wind of that particular day. I like very different things for very different reasons and singling out any single one of them as an absolute favorite only addresses the reasons I like that one thing, and ignores a whole lot of my reasons for liking something else.

So, in my attempt to approach this topic I set a couple of ground rules. I didn't want to talk about long, ongoing series, like the Avengers or the X-Men. These types of books are incredibly formative for me, but given their nature of changing creative teams and never-ending story arcs I would find it impossible to really talk about what any specific title means to me, simply because the specifics of that changes over time. I didn't want to make a comprehensive list of titles and go into analytical detail about why I believe them to be good. I'm not going to talk about Watchmen, or Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, or some of the other really well-known and critically acclaimed graphic novels that typically end up on these lists. I think that both of these are amazing, historically significant works that changed the course of comics history (there are others as well). I love both of these stories, but at this point I tend to approach both of them from a more academic point of view. They are comics that stimulate my intellect and as a result my enjoyment of them has changed over the years. They are “brain-comics” for me.

The books I want to talk about here are “heart-comics,” the ones I simply love and feel nostalgic for. These are the books I always think of when asked about favorites. While I think there are legitimate artistic reasons for including them on a list of good comics (and I'll touch on some of that), I'm not going to pretend that this is an objective criticism. These are comics that simply spoke to me at a certain time and place in my life and came to mean something personal. Debates can take place as to the relative merits of any of the books I plan on discussing, but that's not what this is about. No matter what kind of “Best Of” list anyone puts out it automatically begs people to disagree with it. Feel free. While I fully support the idea of genuine critical analysis of any work of art I also know that the bottom line for any of us is our own personal reaction. The best reviews in the world won't convince any of us to love something we hate. The worst reviews won't make us give up the things we love.

The upcoming blog posts on this topic are an exploration of my own interaction with this art-form I love, highlighting some of the books I love the most. Hopefully some of you will be inspired to try these comics and come to love them as much as I do. If not, it doesn't matter.

So what comics are on my list?

You'll have to keep reading.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Small Press Interview: Chris Maverick

I met Chris Maverick (Mav to his friends) as a customer at Phantom of the Attic, the comics shop I work at, close to fifteen years ago. Over that time we've become friends. Mav works on a pretty amazingly wide-range of creative projects. He writes, he draws, he is a photographer, as well as one of the most prolific Bloggers in my personal circle of friends. In this interview he describes himself as "the hardest working lazy man in the world" and it's a pretty apt description.

Mav works with artist Max Bajzek on Cosmic Hellcat Adventures. You can read more about Max and see his art at http://max1975.deviantart.com/ or listen to his music at http://shutterdownmusic.com/history.html

In the meantime, here's my interview with Mav.

Tell us a bit about your comics and where they are available.

Well, my main comic is called Cosmic Hellcat Adventures. It's a webcomic with a yearly print collection. It's about 4 catgirls (along with their robot sidekick) who are a military unit of adventurers, traveling through space on their artificially intelligent smartship. So you know, pretty run of the mill stuff. Actually, it's intended to be a spoof of about a dozen different things, but obviously manga and Star Trek are in there pretty heavily. You can read it at http://www.cosmichellcats.com. Right now it updates 3 days a week, new storyline entries on Mondays and Thursdays and then on Saturday, there's a weekly joke strip with the same characters that's kind of set outside of the storyline. You can also buy the book collections there.

There are also a couple spin-off projects that are print only. Science Ninja Action Team Cosmic Hellcats: IX, which actually predates the webstrip, and introduces all of the main characters.

Then there's Katt & Dawg, which is a Sin City spoof which is much more adult and R rated (Hellcats is strictly PG-13) than my normal strip. It's about a former Hellcat who quit the team and went to work as a detective and bounty hunter on a planet full of dog people. She's teamed up with her boyfriend who is a 9 foot tall dogman with a really bad attitude. So this is my chance to really push boundaries and do kind of a film noir kinda thing while still being funny and trying to be entertaining.

And then there's Tactics Espionage and Defense Directorate Intergalactic Justice Advocates: µ (or Teddijam for short). This is my super-action-spy story staring a team of SHIELD inspired super spies, who just happen to be teddy bears. They're in the same universe, and like Katt and Dawg were introduced in the main Hellcats strip. I'm working on this one now, but it should be done soon.

All the print comics are available for order through IndyPlanet.com and linked to from the Cosmic Hellcats website.

Why comics?

Why not? Mostly because I love them. I've been a fan all my life and it's something I've just always wanted to do. I like telling stories and comics provides a way of doing certain things that I can't really do in regular fiction writing or even in movies. It really is a special art medium and I really enjoy playing around with some of it's concepts in the story. Of course most of the little details and tweaks I do are probably lost on 99% of people, but you don't really need to notice them to follow the story and it's always nice when someone happens to point out one to me and I'm like "YES! He gets it!"

Who have been your biggest influences, both in writing and in art?

Wow, this literally changes from week to week. I'm just ridiculously impressionable, so it really depends on what I last looked at, read or watched. As a general rule, I found Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics series to be highly influential in the way I think about comics, but not necessarily in the style I write or draw. I tend to think pretty cinematically, so there's a lot of movie humor and story structure in the way I write. I tend to be very into character based drama rather than story based and I'm a big fan of classic writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald all the way to TV/Movie writers like Joss Whedon and Ronald Moore. In all their cases character development is way more important than the story that's progressing, not that the stories are bad, but it's what I try to think about when writing.

Same thing with art, it changes very often. But growing up I was a constant huge fan of Roy Lichtenstein & Patrick Nagel and later Dennis Mukai and Jennifer Janesko. All four of those people are obviously know for women primarily, but they're all very sketchy and expressive. It's more about getting an emotion or a feeling across with the lines than it is about being photo realistic.

If we want to put this in comic terms, then the lists of people who I find influential end up including some pretty obvious names, Kirby, Lee, Alan Moore, Frank Miller. And maybe some unobvious ones like Mark Gruenwald and Bruce Timm (who I mention particularly because I characterize him in that same group as the four painters I mentioned)

What are your favorite comics (whether you consider them influential on your style or not)?

First let me just get Watchmen out of the way. Everyone should read Watchmen. If you haven't read Watchmen, quit reading this right now. Go read Watchmen and then come back when you're done.

Ok, hi again. Let's continue…

Well, it depends on my mood. No surprise I'm drawn to ensemble books with long continuously evolving growing mythologies where character development is more important than the story, so I've always been a fan of the X-books and of the Teen Titans. At least up until both of their most recent revamps. I'm still reading both of those books, but they're starting to lose me. Similarly, I was a big fan of Birds of Prey for a long time, and the New 52 killed that for me (IWillNotRantIWillNotRantIWillNotRantIWillNotRantIWillNotRant). Another good example is John Byrne's Next Men. I've stuck with that for a long long time. I'm currently enjoying Morning Glories a lot. To reach back and look at a book that no one but me ever read, David Campiti and Bill Mumy's Lost in Space. Loved it! That may explain a lot about Hellcats right there.

Have you studied art or writing in college, or are you self-taught?

I went to Carnegie Mellon University and graduated with a double major in creative writing and literary and cultural studies and a minor in art, so that probably explains why I tend to think of stuff the way I do with comics. I'm always looking for hidden undertones and scholarly ideals in the text and art. Really, I guess that makes me a huge nerd… but an educated nerd!

What’s your normal process for creating your comic?

For the main comic, I write an outline of what I want to do over the course of a year and then I write short panel breakdowns of what I want the first 10-20 episodes to be and then I send them to Max, the artist on Cosmic Hellcat Adventures. This gives him a chance to modify stuff if he has a good idea and get his feedback in and then he sends me the inked pages which I color and letter. I generally write the actual script as I'm lettering. This gives us some time to collaborate and makes the story almost as much his as it is mine. Sometimes by the end of the story arc, some minor visual detail that he tossed in can end up changing the whole direction of the story. It's fun like that. I like to think it's very Lee and Kirby.

For Katt and Dawg, which I drew as well as wrote, I actually just did a script for myself from the beginning, complete with dialogue that I knew I'd be able to change as I went along. Same thing for the Teddijam story I'm working on now.

How do you promote your work?

Not well enough. We pay for banner ads in places. We have a Twitter feed (@cosmichellcats) and a Facebook page. I tell people about it. And we go to comic book conventions a few times a year. Really, promotion is the hardest part. I honestly don't expect to get rich (though it'd be nice, so everyone go to my website and buy a copy or 50 dammit) but I do want to spread the stories farther, get more feedback and make enough money that I don't go broke doing this. Oh yeah, and unlike most indy comics, I have hot cosplay models. So if you check out the site or come see us as con icons, you'll see girls in the sexy costumes from time to time. Hey, I might not be the best at promotion, but I know sex sells!

What do you enjoy most about being a comics creator?

Telling the stories. I know it sounds hokey to say, and you've probably heard this come out of the mouths of a million artists in any medium from comics to painting to writing to acting to singing, but I really don't know how to not do this. Telling stories is just kind of what I do. There's stuff swirling around in my head, and like any other artist, I've got just enough vanity and audacity to think that other people out there actually give a damn about what I have to say. And also, like every other artist I have just enough lack of self-esteem that I really need to know what they think in order to have self-validation and not jump off a bridge. So that's the reason I write and draw and even tweet random stuff everyday (@chrismaverick).

What do you find most difficult about being a comics creator?

The time. It's a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. Hellcats is something I've been doing for 4 years now. And basically it's a second job. It takes about as much time as my real job, sometimes more, and it's not profitable. In fact, sometimes it ends up costing me money. So really it's the the love of the whole thing that keeps me going.

What's more important to you: Telling a story or pushing the bounds of comic book art?

Definitely telling a story. At least for me. A couple reasons, one, all of the stuff I spouted above about how I think about stories and fiction in general, and two, I personally believe I'm a much stronger writer than I am an artist. Its just what I'm more interested in. I mean, I'm really happy when I have a particularly good looking or moving piece of art, and I'm really happy when someone says they like something, but I'm driven much more by the writing aspect of it.

Why self publish instead of submitting your work to the majors?

Well, the stories I'm interested in right now are mine. I'd love to write Spiderman one day. Or Justice League. But Hellcats was a very specific idea that I wanted to tell and I wanted it to be mine. Yeah, it'd be great if I had the power of Disney or Warner Brothers behind me selling the book, but I wanted to own it, I wanted full control and I had something unwrapping in my head that I wanted to make work. Also, I'm kind of lazy. In fact, I may be the hardest working lazy man in the world.

What are your long-term goals with comics?

I'd love it if could support me, but I'm not holding my breath. Really I just want to be able to tell good stories that I enjoy writing and would enjoy reading and hope that as many people read them as possible. Like I said before, artists are notoriously self-conscious. So we totally need feedback from the masses in order to feel like our lives are not empty and meaningless. Do please, read my comic, write us and let us know what you think. I mean you wouldn't want to see me jumping off a bridge would you.

Where can you be found you on the web if anyone wants more info?

The comics's website is http://cosmichellcats.com. And there's a twitter account of @cosmichellcats. You can also follow me, individually at @chrismaverick or write me at mav@cosmichellcats.com (or both Max and I at feedback@cosmichellcat.com)

Monday, February 6, 2012


I've been thinking about libraries recently, and how grateful I am that they exist. Reading and books are such a major part of my life that I simply can't imagine a world where they weren't readily available.

I grew up in the country. The grade schools I went to in first through third grade (in Nineveh and Rogersville, PA respectively), were small community schools. In Nineveh there were only three classrooms and three teachers for six grades. First and second grade kids shared a room and a teacher, as did third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. Neither of these two schools were big enough for an actual library. One day a week the Bookmobile would show up. This was the traveling library for the entire school district and I assume it spent the rest of the week at other grade schools. It was essentially a large motor home lined with bookshelves and books.

The librarian was a wonderful woman by the name of Mary Berryman. She was small built, with gray hair, catseye glasses, and a sweater held on by clasps. I know how amazingly cliché this description sounds, but it is the truth. When I was six I thought she was old, but she continued as the district grade school librarian well past the time I graduated college, so my perceptions are a little skewed.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I learned to read, mostly from comic books, well before I began first grade. Mom is an avid reader and instilled her love of books in me very early. Library day was my favorite day of the week.

I'm not exactly sure of the chronology of this, but I also remember the Library came to our community during the summer months as well, for a summer reading program. It's possible I went to the Bookmobile before I actually started school. Mom tells me that once when she took me I chose the books I wanted and when I took them to check out Mrs. Berryman asked my Mom if they weren't a little too advanced for me. Mom said they were what I wanted, and if they were too advanced, well then, there was something for me to learn from them. She continues the story that when we returned the books I couldn't wait to tell Mrs. Berryman all about them.

Mrs. Berryman guided thousands of students through the hallowed shelves of her library over the years, but I think it's accurate to say I was one of her favorite kids. Mom instilled my love of books. Mrs. Berryman and the school library facilitated my access to them in a way my family could never have afforded. I was voracious (still am).

Oddly enough, the first three real books (chapter books instead of stuff written primarily for kids), did not come from the library. Mom bought me a copy of the Howard Pyle version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I inherited copies of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from my older brother. I had read all of these by the time I finished third grade.

By the time I entered fourth grade the school district had built a brand new school building in Graysville, PA and consolidated several of the smaller grade schools in this new location. Mrs. Berryman finally had a permanent home for her library, and for the first time I had access to one every day. I couldn't begin to tell you the number of books I read there.

In addition to the library we were periodically given a catalog from Scholastic (or the 1970's equivalent) that we could order books from. I remember getting several in this fashion, including my first copy of All In Color For A Dime, a collection of essays about comics of the Golden Age. This was probably my first, conscious knowledge of comic book history, and definitely my first exposure to the concept of comics scholarship (just as an aside... I loaned my copy of this to the Chatham student I'm advising this semester because one of the essays ties in specifically with the topic she is writing about for her thesis.)

My original copy, with this cover, is long gone.
A revised edition came out a few years ago.

In seventh grade I went to the West Greene High School building (there was no separate middle school then; grades seven through twelve all wandered the same halls and used the same facilities). Of course I very quickly made myself at home in the library there and became a very familiar face to the new librarian, Mrs. Hildreth. The books housed there were aimed at an older audience of course.

During my teen years, in addition to the books I read from the library, I began to buy a lot of cheap paperbacks: Westerns, spy novels, and men's adventure stories with guns and girls. They were the kind of books that were probably inappropriate for my age and certainly not available at the school library. Eventually I discovered Science Fiction and Fantasy and was somewhat redeemed.

During my last year in high school there was a day when the seniors went to work as an assistant with one of the grade school teachers and help with their classes. I couldn't think of anyone back at Graysville I would rather spend the day with than Mrs. Berryman. She proudly introduced me to her classes as someone she was proud of and who had a bright future, because as she told them, I had always read books.

Mary Berryman did eventually retire and lived a long life. She's gone now but shines in my memory as the absolute Platonic ideal of a Librarian.

During college and grad school I had access to libraries of course. I used them primarily for research and class projects, but there was always the reading for pleasure aspect of it. I read a lot of Hesse, Henry Miller, Proust, and Kerouac while at Edinboro.

Somehow though, once I was out of school, I simply didn't go to a library very frequently. I still read, but I was buying most of my material by that time. I felt like I needed to own everything I read. One of my high school teachers, Will Hinerman (more on him in another post), had a large library of books in his home. There were always books around when I was growing up, but I don't think the idea of a personal library ever crossed my mind until I saw his. It became a goal. To supplement the books I bought at the big chain stores and local book stores I haunted used book stores and flea markets. I suppose I have a little bit of the hoarder in me.

So over time I accumulated a lot of books, a fact that was brought home to me a couple of years ago when, for the first time in many years, I needed to move them.

I started going back to the library regularly when I started working in Oakland. The main branch of the Carnegie Library is around the corner from my store. Over time I have realized I don't need to own everything I read (I would already be out of room in my house if that were the case). I'm there frequently and take advantage of many of their services. I have come to know many of the librarians there, and they are all exemplars of the Berryman credo.

There are two people in my life who I consider close, dear friends who are librarians, one at the Carnegie and one at a university library far away. One of them tells me that every day in the stacks she hears the books sing to her and feels it is a sacred duty to take care of them. The other one refers to the library as a “Temple for the Secular Soul.” I love that they both use the language of the sacred to refer to what they do.

For most of recorded history the ability to read was reserved to a special few. It was one of the things only the very privileged ever learned. The idea of archiving the collected knowledge of the world, its history and its stories, is one of the greatest ideas in our history. Today, when the skill of reading is taught to everyone, I fear it is all too often taken for granted. The ability to read was kept from the lower classes, slaves specifically, in an effort to keep people uninformed and more easily controlled. Ideas can be dangerous things, especially to the status quo. Today, when information is at our fingertips, when the wisdom of the ages is readily available, far too many people choose to remain willfully illiterate. Books are gateways to other worlds, to other ways of thinking, to knowledge and wisdom, to entertainment and enlightenment and empowerment.

In a recent conversation with one of my librarian friends she told me that someone had accused her of reading too much. My immediate response was to say that there's no such thing as reading too much. This was based on my own belief that there are far more books I want to read than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. After giving it some more thought I do want to amend my initial kneejerk reaction. It is possible to read too much if you never actually go out and have a life as well. Your life is your story; you are writing your own book every day. It should be filled with something other than reading. But reading provides guideposts and maps for the kind of life you want to live.

In spite of the pages I devour, I don't think I live to read.

I read to live.