Looking back on when I was a nine-year-old girl at sleep-away camp, there was one major highlight of my day: Checking the package list for my name, desperately hoping that I would have something from my parents. As I had learned to expect, in addition to the occasional sneaked candy contraband, these packages would always be filled with comics. They were mostly Archie comics, but sometimes my Dad would pick out some special selections for me, such as Thor (a joke referring to his namesake, Tory, as he would often remind me). I wasn't a big fan of Thor, but I loved reading the Archie comics, which definitely beat out my assigned summer reading books.
It would make sense to say that I stopped reading comics as I grew older because I started to see them as "kids' stuff" and "uncool," but that wouldn't be the truth. I did, after all, continue to do a lot of things as I grew older that my peers thought were uncool. But I started to find them boring, and I put them down; I hadn't looked beyond Archie to see what else was out there. No browsing on Amazon, or trips to the comic book store — I just gave up.
Twelve years later, I stumbled upon the comic series Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel. Her comics were raw and well-crafted storytelling, not just light rom-com like the Archie comics. And I found myself reading them non-stop. This was an epiphany for me because during college I had become a pretty strict reader of non-fiction. Maybe it was because I was constantly surrounded by peers who I felt knew more than me, and so I felt like I had to spend all my free time catching up. Or maybe it was because I simply had no time for reading anything that wasn't for class. Whatever the reason, I had decided that reading fiction was a waste of time. But starting to read comics again changed that for me.
After devouring pretty much the whole Dykes to Watch Out For archives, I moved on from Alison Bechdel to Brian K. Vaughan, and from Vaughan to Warren Ellis. Each had a totally different style of storytelling, but each was fresh and exciting, as well as incredibly thought-provoking. Vaughan's series Y: The Last Man featured a post-apocalyptic world where almost all men had been wiped out by an unknown disease, and seemed to realistically portray what the world and internal relations might look like if suddenly all the countries in the world were being run by women. I found myself drawn into the series' both descriptive and visual depiction of women adjusting to a world without men. And Ellis's Transmetropolitan chronicled the exploits of a gonzo journalist living in a dystopian future that was eerily believable.
These comics exploded the myth I had been telling myself that fiction couldn't be as intellectually stimulating as non-fiction. I also started reading non-illustrated fiction again around that time, and found myself loving it. Instead of reading (often speed-reading, as had become my norm during college) to glean information, comics forced me to slow down and let every image tell part of the story. Instead of just letting my eyes skim over a page of text, I would look long and deeply at the images, thinking about how the drawing style was carefully executed to bring out the tone of the story. Sometimes a two-page spread of Transmetropolitan would have enough depictions of futuristic punk hairstyles and apocalyptic urban environments to keep me transfixed. It was almost like letting my mind do yoga — I was present, stretching, and unwinding. And my imagination would suddenly begin to stir.
Connecting with the text, something I'd lost completely, had been resurrected. Reading comics changed my whole orientation toward experiencing prose. Maybe they can do the same for you.
Image: Steven Depolo via Flickr