Within the comic book industry, there are writers who are desperately doing their utmost to break the trends and associated stereotypes. To write comics that aren’t just for small kids. To write stories without the need of a superhero. To access an audience that beyond the prepubescent and forty-somethings still living with their parents. To accomplish this is harder than you might realise, considering the industries sole focus on ‘what works’. But even harder than this, is existing as one of those readers outside the bracket.
When I first came to Sheffield university I spent my first week getting my grips with the city. Getting ready for my first lectures. Getting accustomed to the chores of living away from home. It’s a lonely experience at first and I was not content to fall at the first hurdle, and forced my unsociable bones wherever students congregated. I stamped out all thoughts of replacing potential company with a video games console, triumphed over my natural hermit instincts, and pierced youtube’s menacing red heart with a defining click on the close window button. I even woke up at a reasonable time in the morning. On the second night I marched myself toward the student union building, roaring out war-cries to anyone in my path. Hello, I’m Poncho and I’m from Kent. They fled behind their smiles and returned greetings, so they did. I blitzkrieged my way through the crowds, fought my way to the entrance, the shining gates where I might prove myself to be a real human being with a real social life. And then I saw the yelling, screaming, spilled beer, music too loud to enjoy or hear and the flashing lights that threatened me with epileptic shock. At which point I made a brusque and sudden turn away from the club and straight into the bookstore before it closed. A book has never once thrown up over me.
The place was minutes before closing and the guy behind the counter looked undecided between ushering me out early or dead on the hour. I had to move fast. I refused to return to my apartment in absolute defeat; I would have my small consolation prize before I vanished behind my dormitory walls. But the books were endless and time was short, too short for me to pick out the diamonds from the rough. But the comics. They faced outward on the shelves. Unashamed and challenging they demanded, ‘sure I’m next to Bronté and Oscar Wilde. what are you going to do about it?’. I was touched by the defiance, the strength to stand up to those snotty classics. It was Japanese, a manga comic, and the cover displayed the heroine with her impossibly styled black hair, over exaggerated features and charming wink. Who could complain about lacking friends, when for the price of £4.00 I might spend an evening reading a beautiful woman’s tales. So I stumbled home, past the pre-drunk victors of the night, and read my first comic since I was seven years old. And then I promptly fell in love with Rally Vincent.
Gunsmith Cats was the title, and it fell through all the usual pitfalls. The occasional poor dialogue, the ridiculous action sequences, the hints at Japanese fan service. And yet, I grew to love Rally and the characters as much as I had with my books or films, and continued reading long into the night as the party outside burned out into dawn. Deeper than the spiderman comics my father bought me when I was kid, more adult, more complex. I would not be satisfied until I saw this to the end. So instead of finding the like minded among the student population during the day, I returned to that bookshop to retrieve the rest of Rally’s adventures.
This was not the happy ending I’m sure most of you would assume. Alas, this opened up to a world of other comics, of characters I knew and didn’t know, of artists and writers each with their own styles. Why stop with Rally, when Rick Grimes cuts through one zombie at a time on his search for his family, or when Bigby Wolf strives on to devour the North Wind. What happens when Batman grows old and decides to don the cape and cowl once more, and will Marv achieve his revenge. Only Frank Miller could tell me. Who would murder the Comedian, and who is V if not everyone. Only Alan Moore might answer. I walked into a comic shop, faced the endless shelves and saw past the soap operas and mindless action series’, and those forty-something guys the clichés adore so much. Behind it all, were the books that would mean something to me. It was like I was being exposed to it all for the first time.
That’s all very grand and wonderful on one condition; that you can actually access them. Most comic stories have a tendency to be released in parts, and generally the older it becomes the harder it is to find every part. So when I returned to the comic book shop for my next volume (going on number 3) I was a little put out to discover that it wasn’t there. Volumes 4, 5, 8 and 10 were there. But not 3. I spoke to the guy behind the counter who frowned.
“Ah, yeah somebody just came in for it. Don’t worry, if demand rises enough across the country we’ll restock on that one”. What was I to do? I was mid way through the plot and nowhere to turn to. I could have used the free time to introduce myself to some new people at university but that would be madness, madness I say. No, I must find the next part.
Believe it or not, comic book shops do not have a monopoly. Waterstones book store always has a small section for them, as well as lots of other chains. In those days, I had yet to fully harness the raw power that was amazon (technological expertise came far later for me), and so had to rely on face to face encounters. On my quest to complete my comic stories I was resigned to frequent the darkest places known to Sheffield. Sifting through cardboard boxes in charity shops, exploring the depths of miscellaneous stores, daring myself into whale’s stomach of HMV and yes, the dreaded and poisonous shop known as ‘Galaxy 4’; a Dr Who merchandise supplier. I was surrounded Daleks, rainbow scarves, cybermen outfits, police box piggy banks and mugs, endless horrifying mugs. Good God help me while I find myself in such peril. The comic shelf was varied but at head level were the Dr Who texts. The first coverglared down at me; an illustration of a young woman in the rainbow scarf and sunglasses beaming down with the tardis behind her, two fingers extended in the sign of victory. The title read ‘Chicks Dig Timelords: a collection of essays by women who fell in love with Dr Who’. I hugged my Fables volume 5 to my chest and wondered if I’d ever have a girlfriend again.
In time however, before the year was through I had exhausted the stocks of the few shops that sold comics. I was forced to go weeks without a new volume to tide me over and the eventual withdrawal crept up on me. I sat down amongst my fellow Japanese language students, Amber and Mon Mon reflected on how little I showed my face at the union building, how few parties I attended. Hiding my twitching hands under the table I used money as an excuse, and somebody suggested it was common. The cost of drinking every week for a university student was high. Drinks, I said, yes…they are expensive. Amber squinted at me from across the table. You have no idea how much a drink costs, do you. No, I said, I have no idea.
The withdrawals were getting bad after a month. I found myself rereading old issues and dreaming up my own conclusions. I started tying my scarf around my face in my apartment, pretending I was Lamont Cranston from the Shadow. I ended up going to the cinema to see the latest Marvel film with far more vigour than my natural scepticism would normally allow (and as soon as that missing, I knew I needed help). Something had to be done. I had two options. Either I find a new method of continuing my addiction and therefore preventing the effects of withdrawal. Or I learn to move on with my life, read only what’s available and use the extra time to develop my social skills and build a life for myself beyond the small confines of my meagre apartment. So naturally I chose option one.
Every week I visited the comic book store and every week I was out of luck. I would ask at the counter just in case, and every time the answer was the same. We did get something in but one of our regulars bought it already. Damn you forty-somethings and damn the clichés! I would stroll in at midday and I was too late. I came in at 11 and again I was too late. The regulars came in at 9 and what sort of monster does that? Human beings are unconscious at that ungodly hour on a Saturday. But the twitching was getting worse and I very nearly went down to the supermarket with a red scarf wrapped around my face (I got as far the car park before I noticed). So I prepared myself for the greatest human feat of the year (university student feat rather. It’s a different breed of human being). I went to bed at a record 10pm and set no less than a dozen alarms, all of them stacked to go off five minutes apart from each other. I downed several litres of water too to give my body more reason to get up first thing in the morning and for once refused to spend my evening pondering on the exciting life of ducks (Sheffield ducks are adventurous creatures. That’s not sarcasm in case it’s not clear. They are genuinely amazing and belong in the category of ‘creatures who really should be extinct by now due to how ridiculous they are and their utter lack of survival instinct’. Sheffield ducks. You will be missed).
In the morning I awoke later than I had planned (I am alas still human, and not a monster) and ran out the door as soon as I could. I would be late for the opening of the comic book shop and my curiosity would not tolerate another extension of not knowing the next part of the story. That curiosity would be the death of me if the withdrawals continued. I must get there before my issue was snatched up by someone else, so I sprinted cat-like across Sheffield, bounding over fences and flashing across the road. I burst into the store five minutes past the hour and searched the shelves until I found it. Volume 3 at long last. I pounced upon it, and then proudly deposited it upon the counter to receive full adoration of my efforts and then shortly feast on my prize. As I was paying someone came in and visited the same section that I had. Before I left I heard him ask at the counter at which point I heard a very familiar line. Sorry, someone else just came in a and bought it.
As wonderful as it is to read comics, and lose myself in their stories or gaze into the art of read into the dialogue, there is one thing for sure. A comic lifestyle is not all fun.