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.