Monday, March 14, 2016

Before Comics Were Cool - Gen-X Recollection Project: Stuart W.

This is the first in what I hope will be a long-running series wherein we collect the memories of fellow Gen-Xer's recalling their experiences with comics, science-fiction and/ or fantasy, from back when these things were far from the coolest activities one could get up to, the internet didn't really exist, and the words "nerd" and "geek" were intended to cause shame.

By the way, I haven't really come up with a name for this project yet, so if you have ideas, email me.

Our first submission is from Stuart, a frequent commenter and a fantastic guy.  Stuart and I met in person last summer at the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, and in between checking out The Superman Museum and eating fried foods, we go to hang out and talk quite a bit.  Stuart is a solid guy, and as we chatted, I realized he had this kind of amazing story, so I'm glad he chose to share it with us.

I know you all have stories, too, and we're here to collect them.

Stuart is a father, husband, and I personally know about one terrific act of heroism he performed that he cannot discuss and which is totally legit.

And so, without further ado...  

Stuart sits upon the Kryptonite stone, sharing his wisdom with all who seek it out

My first memory of buying comic books is off the spinner rack at the Navy Exchange in Keflavik, Iceland. My mother was a Foreign Service Officer stationed at the embassy in Reykjavik, so I lived there when I was nine and ten years old. This was during the height of the cold war, and the famous peace summit between Reagan and Gorbachev occurred while I was there.

As a Foreign Service dependent (“brat” is the common term, but it’s not derogatory) I moved with my mother every couple of years to a new country, or occasionally to the DC Area. As soon as I made a friend or two or started feeling at home, it was about time to move. So from a pretty young age I generally felt like an outsider and avoided emotional attachments.

Foreign Service Officers and their dependents usually live in civilian housing near the embassy or consulate they're stationed to. So it’s not like living on a military base surrounded by Americans with a familiar sense of cultural identity who speak English. Generally, you shop and live and do everything in-country. When I wasn’t being homeschooled, I went to foreign schools.

It’s an experience that’s given me a lot of empathy for foreigners living in the States. I know what it’s like to feel eyes on you everywhere you go. To go into a store and HOPE someone understands if you have a question. To feel completely, hopelessly lost in an alien city, and have no way to communicate with the people around you to help find your way home. To slink away embarrassed when people treat you like you’re stupid, because you don’t understand the SIMPLE THING they’re trying to tell you (and when you don’t understand the first couple tries, they just keep saying it louder).

So, stories about kids who didn’t fit in, or from another planet but who (as it turns out) have secret powers and abilities far beyond that of mortal men – those were the kind of stories I gravitated to.

Anyway, comics. The comics I found were at the Navy Exchange in Keflavik. A Navy Exchange is like a Wal-Mart, only it’s on a Navy base. My mother had diplomatic credentials that got us onto the base and let us use some of the facilities. So, once every couple of weekends, we would make the hour’s drive from Reykjavik across miles of nothing by lava desert (quite dull) to go shopping there and hang out for the afternoon.

Once we got to the Navy Exchange, I went straight for the magazine section, which had a spinner rack full of comics. I’d pick up a few issues, then straight to the electronics section to shop the VHS shelves. Then my mother and I would meet at the checkout, and go to the Viking CafĂ© for lunch and read in relative silence: she with her newspapers and Time magazines and such, and me with my comics.

I spent a lot of time in Iceland not in school, and a lot of that time was spent reading comics. I’d pour over the same pages again and again. This was a solitary activity, as the only “friends” I had were a couple of the Marine guards stationed at the embassy.

My mother, I think, was sort of embarrassed that I read comics and regarded them as a low-brow form of entertainment, but her annoyance was tempered by the fact that I also read "real" books. I had a library of literature classics at my disposal, thanks to her collecting (some would say hoarding) and there was a lot of time to kill, especially in the dark winter months. Because I also read Melville and Dickens, etc. she pretty much left me alone about my affinity for Carl Barks.

My stepfather was not as tolerant of my comic books or my obsession with science fiction in general. He was a Vietnam vet, and I think never really recovered from his experiences. He was also a retired drill sergeant, so when he was in charge of homeschooling me… that was not much fun. Occasionally, if I stepped out of line, he would tear up my comics or break my toys to make a point. If he referred to the (frivolous) things I liked at all, it was mockingly.

I did get to go to an American school for all of sixth grade, when my mother was stationed to DC for a while. That was probably the most “normal” year of my childhood. However, at that point I’d already been kind of conditioned to keep to myself, so making friends wasn’t easy. Also, it wasn’t a particular priority.

I remember trying to get into a few conversations with normal American kids. The boys wanted to talk about heavy metal and sports. The girls mostly wanted to talk about pop music and TV. None of those were things that I cared about.

It was about this time I first started having problems with bullying. I had never been called a “nerd” or a “geek” (back when this was considered an insult) before, but I guess I projected an air of weirdness or weakness or both. I remember being bullied for the shoes I wore to school (red high top tennis shoes, which I chose specifically because they resembled Superman’s boots) or because my backpack or Trapper Keeper wasn’t cool, or for not knowing what “doing it” means (PS it means sex, I know that now). Or for no reason at all.

The bullying was constant. I remember avoiding the bus stop and walking to school a few times just to avoid a potential beating. At one point a kid hit me square in the face with a baseball bat, and I had to have surgery to repair a deviated septum. This entails wearing a bandage on your nose for weeks, which also did not help my popularity.

Anyway, comics. My parents got me a bicycle that year, and told me I was free to take it out on the streets of suburban Rockville, Maryland as long as I was home before dark. So I developed a routine of taking my bike out every day after school and trolling the local places for comics. A Korean grocer in the corner of a strip mall had a spinner rack. The 7-11 had a one too (plus they had a couple stand-up arcade games).

I remember there was a particular shaded area near the 7-11 I would sit and read comics I’d just bought, and drink Slurpees. In the afternoon, even on hot days, sitting alone in the shade with a frozen drink and reading a good comic was pretty much the best.

It was not until high school that I discovered the phenomenon of the comic book shop.

Luckily, my father convinced my mother to let me stay with him in the States through my high school years. This would be the early to mid-1990s. I was still an outsider, but eventually fell in with a couple groups of outsiders. I don’t think the term “hipster” had been coined yet, but whatever the 90s equivalent would be: grunge/goth alternative types. These were my people.

This was when I discovered a little shop across the street from a local college that sold nothing but comic books and comic book-related ephemera. (The whole idea of this to me was basically mind-blowing.) As far as I know, this was the only comic shop in town. It was one of those cavernous places that have a small footprint in an old strip mall facing the street, but when you go inside, it goes way, way back. There were no windows beyond the storefront, so it really felt like descending into a cave. It was dimly lit and kind of dingy, smelling of dust, rotting paper pulp, and incense.

I don't know that I ever saw a single girl in that comic shop.

After purchasing my comics, I generally went to read at a coffee shop just around the corner. There were comfy chairs, and the smell of pipe tobacco and clove cigarettes hung in the air. The smoke was so thick in that place that they had an old air filtration unit the size of a small refrigerator in the corner to cut it down (didn’t seem to help much). There was usually someone playing a game of Magic cards at any given time. This was near a local college, so my high school age friends and I were usually the youngest patrons there.

I rarely met anyone else interested in comics; and if they were, it was invariably different kinds of comics than I was interested in. So, comics continued to be just kind of my own thing.

This was also when I first began to appreciate Wednesday: formerly just a day in the middle of the week, Wednesday became forever after known as “New Comic Day," or the day when new comic issue hit the stands. Still to this day, although I rarely read new comics and haven't been to a comic shop for quite some time, this is stuck in my brain.

It was around this time, that I went to my first comic book convention, in Chicago. I got to meet Garth Ennis, who was very approachable. He signed a copy of Preacher #10 for me, for FREE (which is unheard of now) and invited me to join him on a quick lunch break, where he talked about the Saint of Killers mini-series he was working on. It would be difficult to overstate how different the atmosphere has become at these kind of events, but that's a whole other topic.

Anyway, that experience was pretty special for me. To get to meet one of my favorite creators – not a perfunctory "nice to meet you who should I make this out to, okay NEXT!!" – but a real conversation... I mean, that was everything to me. And, perhaps unfortunately, went a long way toward convincing me to consider pursuing comic book writing as a career choice.

I did eventually develop a close friendship with someone with similar interests. We were fairly inseparable for a few years, thanks a lot to our mutual love of these stories and characters it felt like few others were privileged to know about. Eventually, we moved to Japan together with a crazy idea of spending some time away from the familiar writing and pitching a story of our own.

Now, I’d long heard about how common and accepted manga and anime and science fiction stories were in Japan. But it turned out that only Japanese comics are easy to acquire in Japan. American comics are very difficult to come by, and for someone (like me) who really, really wanted to know what happens in the next issue of Preacher, being cut off from American comics became like a form of addiction withdrawal.

I got a job running the video rental inside the Navy Exchange at the Negishi Navy Base there, but unlike the base in Iceland a decade prior, there were NO COMICS to be found there. (I think this is likely because we were entering an era when grocery stores and drugs stores stopped stocking comics, and it was becoming a more specialized market.)

Fortunately, I had a girlfriend living in the States at the time who was nice enough to send me regular care packages. But when she came to Japan live with us after a couple of months, I was cut off again.

Through the grapevine I heard that there was a larger Navy base in Yakosuka, about an hour’s drive away that actually had its own comic shop. So one afternoon, my girlfriend, my friend, and I embarked on a road trip to find this fabled comic shop. We did find it, but it was kind of a letdown. This was essentially a guy curating his own collection of back issues in a shop about the size of a closet. I did buy a few things, and I vividly remember being greeted by the familiar smell of old comics as we walked through the door.

When my dreams of kind of crashed and burned into extreme poverty, I moved back to the States and tried the safe, normal life route of going to college and getting married.

I found another small, dingy comic shop located downtown, walking distance from campus. I remember many Wednesdays after class walking back to my apartment, reading the issues I’d just bought on my way. This was before texting and driving was a thing, but I caused a few near-miss accidents this way.

A few years into my college experience, the first X-Men movie came out. This was like geek Lollapalooza. I saw everyone I’d ever seen at the comic shop at the local movie theater on opening day. Even though the movie itself was sort of hit and miss, there was this huge energy surrounding the fact that these characters we’d always known and loved were finally getting due recognition. The possibilities for future blockbuster comic book movies seemed endless and exciting.

Looking back, I see this as the beginning of the end of geek culture.

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