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A Comic Book Origin Story

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Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley

comic books

In the small upstate New York town where I lived with my mother from age 8 onward, there have been remarkable changes in the 20 years since we arrived. The farmer's market led to a locavore restaurant boom, and where there were once general stores and kitschy card shops, there are now art movie houses and independent book stores. I'm glad for the changes, for the most part. I can't tell you what it meant to me and my chef mother when a good restaurant opened up in town. But the cigar shop on the corner is a reminder of my own personal history lost in the melee of de-small-townification that has happened to Rhinebeck, New York. It was there that my comic book origin story began.

My father's Harvard education in English Lit and my mother's career as a chef and artist influenced in me a love for the written word and the drawn picture. When my parents divorced, I sought to combine these inherited interests, and saw the obvious conclusion: COMIC BOOKS. Every week when my father would visit me, we would visit the corner smoke shop together. Below the racks of magazines and newspapers, the Archies and X-Men and Ducktales resided. He would look through the papers while I chose a comic (usually an Archie double digest-- to get the most out of the "one comic book only" rule), and then we would go to the malt shop down the street and read our purchases together while drinking milkshakes. Very modern 1950s.

Neither of my parents really cared much for comics. My father considered them to be unchallenging to my growing literacy, and my mother balked at the anti-feminist message in the Archie/Betty/Veronica dynamic. But they indulged my obsession, allowing me to slowly take over the basement with my growing collection. As a result of their distrust, I put myself to the task of convincing them, citing vocabulary learned from comics, and incidents where Betty and Veronica eschewed Archie's hamhanded courtship, or Jughead (my favorite, obviously) demonstrated the breakdown of gender archetypes.

The smoke shop did brisk business with me, and eventually I branched out to shopping in actual comic shops. We only had one, in a mall complex outside of town where the comics vied for attention with pogs and action figures. This was one of those antiquated typical dark and musty places, where when a girl entered the shop, eyes would follow her suspiciously as she moved around the store, as if to wonder, "What are YOU doing here?" On more than one occasion, I was directed towards the "True Love" comics section, and I would scowl and snatch up a copy of "Punisher" or the like, just to disprove their assumptions. The truth is, I never responded much to the superhero comics of the nineties. It was a period of ultra-violence and grittiness, moving comics from the psychedelic themes of the seventies and rock-and-roll kistch of the 80s into what was then considered "comics for adults." What wasn't said was that they were actually comics being made for "adult men." As a young female reader, I didn't have much to respond to in the modern superhero genre. I had a brief and abruptly halted love affair with a Vertigo series called "Harbinger," which was Vertigo's attempt at an X-Men-like franchise. The books featured a slightly chubby and hilarious female superhero who could fly and not do much else. I loved her. She wore pink leotards and said idiotic things and her teammates called her "Zeppelin," to spoof her superhero name, "Zephyr," but I knew she was the real driving force behind the team. The series was cut short after 20 or so issues, all of which still reside in my collection in mom's basement.

It's characters like "Zeppelin" that helped to form my concept of what comics are and what they could be-- transcendent of stereotype, accessible to all readers-- in my current career, making comics. Just like when I was younger, juggling my interest in pictures and stories, when it came to decide my profession, I couldn't pick between artist or writer, so I do both. I make comics about what interests me: food and true stories, travelogues and graphic journalism. The comics world has become vast and diverse and amazing in the years since I perused the meager shelves at the local smoke shop, or slunk uncomfortably down the aisle of the dingy comic shop. Graphic novels win respected prizes! Comics have changed literature, and shape the world of art books. And perhaps most amazingly, my parents have seriously altered their opinion of the genre for the better, which is lucky considering my career.

But the smoke shop in my hometown has morphed into a artisinal tabacconist, and the racks of comics and newspapers were done away with to make room for humidors. The comic shop outside of town has blown away with the cobwebs of nonevolution. The independent book shop, a favorite stop of mine on visits home, has an incredible graphic novel selection. It warms my comics heart, to see these comics treated equally to prose books, and given their due amongst their literary companions. But a part of me is nostalgic for that familiar smell of pipe smoke and the rustle of newspapers; the feeling of achievement that I'd found something colorful and funny and a world unto itself among the black and white of the newsrack. It's similar to the feelings I have when I turn to the back of a newspaper and see classifieds and ads, rather than the familiar four-beat panels I remember from my childhood.

I can't complain-- the developments in comics in recent years have been an amazing gift, both personally and professionally, as a reader and a creator. But I feel for that little girl, bored at the newstand while her dad peruses the headlines, that no colorful cover will catch her eye from this unlikely and adult source, drawing her in to a world that felt like she was the first to discover-- an alien on a new planet, where some goofy carrot top can't make an obvious romantic choice.