Fri
Jan 23 2009 11:14am

The Azaming Snipermad!

Heather Massey recently posted her concerns about the skyrocketing costs, and uncertain future, of comics. Following the discussion, I couldn’t help but reflect on how important comic books have been to me. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say comics saved my life.

When I was very young, three or so, I had learned to read through a combination of Sesame Street and comic strips in the LA Times. When I got into school, the unraveling of my literacy began. It may sound strange to say I unlearned to read, but that is what happened. The methods taught and enforced in my school ran counter to the way my mind worked to such a degree that I became scrambled by the conflict. I had learned to read in big visual chunks; school taught one letter at a time, one word at a time, in a manner that works just fine for 90% of the populous but jacked me up something royal.

It would be inaccurate to say I was totally illiterate, but I was damn close to it. Reading, especially reading out loud, became an embarrassing ordeal. The other kids weren’t particularly kind about my problems; they were kids. Teachers thought I was either lazy or just pretending to have problems. 

Understanding dyslexia still has a long way to go. But back in the dark ages (aka the 1970s) few knew of it, and of those, most thought it was a load of crap. (As I see it, dyslexia is a lot like being left-handed in a right-handed world. Being left-handed is not a disability, but the world is set up for the right-handed.)

I’ll spare you every awful detail of my education, which was baaaaad, even by Los Angeles standards. LA public schools generally offer a curriculum only slightly better than being punched in the throat. Suffice it to say that for many years I muddled along in the back of the class as my self-esteem eroded. A decade or so of being told you’re lazy and/or stupid tends to take its toll on a kid. 

Still, somewhere in the way-back parts of my beleaguered brain, I held on to the hope that they were all wrong and some day, I’d show the fuckers what was what, cerebrally speaking. In the meantime, I became a half-assed delinquent: too nice for juvenile hall, too big a miscreant for much else.

One day when I was about 12, a friend and I were smoking stolen Camels and mixing up some homemade napalm in his garage when I happened upon a few comic books. My friend thought they’d make for great burning, but I talked him out of it. It was The Amazing Spiderman, after all, though I had never paid attention to comic books, I loved superhero TV shows. Plus, I remembered him from The Electric Company, and though as a preteen anarchist I’d never admit it, I thought the Electric Company was an excellent show. (I re-watched it recently. It still rocks.)

While my friend continued gleefully to mix the weapon of medium destruction, chattering on about all the stuff he was going to burn down (schools, churches, cars, Barbie dolls), I flipped through Spiderman.

You know the cliché cartoon moments when an amnesiac is hit on the head and suddenly remembers everything? Well, such Popeye neurology isn’t real, but that is how it felt to me. At one moment, I was looking at drawings. The next moment, I was reading. A light had switched on in my brain. Something in the colors, the blocks of text, the way the visuals were organized simply worked. It meshed with my information processing.

 My heart raced. My head whirled about in Peter Parker Paradise. The glory of the printed word exploded in me. I demanded that my friend give me every comic book he had. He did. And then we burned down a stop sign.

I left off domestic terrorism and went comics-crazy after that. I was down for any of it, but I loved The Uncanny X-Men and Spiderman most of all. I remember a brief stint with Moon Knight, though I never quite knew what was going on. 

The transition from comics to novels took a little longer. It wasn’t a sudden “Eureka!” deal, but rather a summer-long intensive brain training. By the time I started high school, I pretty much swallowed books whole.

My parents had always been avid readers, and they were overjoyed to see the transformation. My dad would take me to Redondo Beach’s only used bookstore and let me go crazy in the scifi section. 

This is a website for readers, so there’s no point in enumerating all of the benefits of reading. But I can say without a doubt that had I never gained a love of books, I’d have suffered mightily for it. I know people dispute the claims of high percentages of dyslexics in jail or among young suicides, but I think it’s safe to say I was headed firmly in a very rough direction. Reading  not only gave me something valuable to do, it also gave me real proof that I was neither lazy nor stupid. It put an end to an ugly conflict inside me. 

’Nuff said.

5 comments
Jim Stitzel
1. stitzelj
I love comics. I had to grow up in order to really find my way to them, though. Now, I'm starting to think that webcomics are going to be the way to take the medium into the future. Everything's about dynamic, interactive media now, and for the most part, I think that's a good thing. I'd love to see some of the big vendors take a page out of the webcomics book and start turning the medium more electronic.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
I have very little experience with web comics, but given the lively discussion that followed Heather's post, I am very interested.

In general, reading online is not my favorite method, but maybe the graphic format would make it more enjoyable.
Dayle McClintock
3. trinityvixen
They may not have taught me to read (my babysitter did when I was three because she was convinced--rightly--that reading was the most important skill ever), but comics helped me maintain my sanity. From a very young age, I was addicted to genre stuff, and while the geek rules pop culture now, the best I could get at when I was a kid (with no allowance, in a household of six-seven where I never controlled the remote and didn't have internet until high school) were Saturday morning cartoons of X-Men and Spider-Man. I nearly went nuts. The odd issue of Wonder Woman that I got two for $1 at a toy store upstate were lifelines. I traded all the tickets I could amass at the school fair for reprints of old X-Men stories. I remember grabbing off issues from the fuckin' grocery store, I was so starved for something--anything--that wasn't mainstream adult crap that I didn't get or kid's stuff. Comics filled that void.

To this date, I have ALL of the old issues of things that got me through adolescence, all the way through high school. Later comics that I purchased have been given away, but I'll keep a lot of these older, rattier issues until the day I die.
David Lev
4. davidlev
Although I am not dyslexic, I have a similar story abouyt the power of comics as reading tools.

My dad had a sabbatical in France when I was little, and i went to French school. Every week or so we'd go to the school library, and I would check out the Asterix, Tintin, and Lucky Luke comics. Because France has a large comic book (or BDs, as they're called there) industry especially for kids, and because there are a lot of French comics that have been translated into WEnglish (available from the American Library in Montpellier), I can honestly say that comic books taught me to read French.
Dave Bell
5. DaveBell
It would not surprise me if most of us were pre-school readers, to some extent. Being from the UK, specifically England, I can't compare school systems, but the teaching of literature in my High-School-equivalent years was sometimes pretty grim.

I was a voraciours reader despite the teachers.

The problem of how to teach reading rumbles on an on. All I know is that I read by the word, not the letter.

And it took Thunderbirds to teach me the difference between antelope and Penelope.

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