I think that the modern mythologies and worlds that have been created by comic book writers, artists and publishers are nothing short of amazing. They are also worlds that I love to escape to whenever I can.
Little People Talking in Word Balloons.
My earliest memories of reading are the word balloons in the Sunday colour comics section of the Times-Colonist newspaper. I remember the smell and touch of the thin paper sheets, spread out on the fireplace hearth in Poppy's house (my maternal grandfather), at 1002 Cook Street in Victoria, BC. I would be laying flat on my belly with my noise an inch away from the paper, poring over every detail - immersed in some abstract world of various levels of meaning. I was engaged by the colour printing and fascinated by the sometimes crappy registration of the colours, which revealed to me the layered process that created the images and words. I read it all with curiosity and conviction, as if it were my personal bible. Many of the words I didn't understand, but I usually could infer the meaning by looking at the pictures.
The little rectangles of the Sunday colour comics, or the even tinier, more cryptic ones in the dailies, portrayed a small, safe world, full of familiar characters in familiar poses, doing and saying familiar things. It was a welcoming, non-challenging world of boxes - like pretty little presents served up by some unseen hands. I knew that the authors, whomever they were, were not speaking to me specifically, but were doing something like talking through their words and drawings. They were telling me their many stories. And from it, there was that same, warm comfort that I had experienced from hearing a bedtime or school-time story: "Oh boy! A story! What fun!"
Occasionally, I wondered who it was who drew and spoke through "Peanuts" (who was "Schulz"?) or "The Lockhornes". When I was five or six, much of the humour, sarcasm and double entendres of more the subtle newspaper strips, like "B.C." or "Rex Morgan, M.D." absolutely confused me.
Ah, Sweet Sarcasm and Scary, Grown-up Stuff
I have that same maternal Grandfather, Poppy, to thank for my becoming aware of other more mature forms of comics. Thanks to him, I got my hands on my first "Mad Magazine" and on Warren monster mags like "Creepy" and "Eerie". These were probably tossed in the trash by my Dad or my Grandmother, but it was the photographer's eye, and even more, the mischievous little boy in my dear old Poppy which brought me those little glimpses of a more daring, more grown-up and less saccharine world. Thanks in part to Mad (and more likely to my parents), I probably called my sister stupid for the first time, and used a disrespectful, sarcastic tone of voice when speaking to her. After this behaviour earned me a few raps on the head from my Dad, the sarcasm didn't seem quite so empowering.
The Warren mags showed me glimpses of men in mysterious space helmets blasting monsters while protecting voluptuous, scantily clad women. Most of this was beautifully rendered in stark black and white line art. The stories felt just a little dirty, and much more interesting and serious than the shallow Sunday funnies.
The darker, grittier themes really resonated with me as I got older. My earliest comic book memory was of a Batman comic that I thumbed through at a corner grocery store in Langley, around 1972, when I was about six. It might have been illustrated by Neil Adams - it was in his era - but the dark tones and sombre mood showed me that little colour comic books could have an adult level and depth of character as well. At the time, I didn't know why they appealed to me so much, but I just knew that I liked them.
Five or six years later, I rediscovered "Creepy" magazine at a local grocery, and knew I had to have it. Over the next few years, I bought "Creepy", "Eerie", "Vampirella" and "Famous Monsters of Filmland" as often as I could, and amassed a collection of 50 or 60 such magazines. After the Warren mags ceased publication in the early eighties, I began collecting Heavy Metal with much the same fervor.
Heavy Metal brought me back to that same mysterious, bad boy feeling that I'd enjoyed years before with Eerie, but this time, I could understand all the stories and the dialogue, and enjoyed it all in luxurious full-colour artwork by artists such as Bilal, Mobius, Corben, and McKie. I collected dozens of these mags too, and occasionally I will still pick one up today.
High School: A Good Place to Study Comics
Later on, to my great delight, I discovered that my high school library carried many hardcover books on the topic of comics and comic artists. I began to learn more about the origins and development of many famous heroes, and some of the culture that brought them into being.
I learned about Superman's genesis as a character, and the mythology of how he came to Earth as a superhuman protector of the world. I also learned about the Fantasic Four, and one of my all-time favourite characters, "Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds". The classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby story arc from the sixties showed me that little colour comics could contain immense scope in their plots, with grandiose and complex settings like alternate realities, and Gods walking the Earth, and abstract, massive-scale themes like the destruction of the world. With vague references to Neitcheism, Religion and Nihilism, the FF seemed to be written for dope-smoking college philosophy students. It was all served up with that blend of pathos, soap opera melodrama and bombastic exposition that characterized a Stan Lee Marvel tale. For pure energy and bang-per-buck, stuff-per-panel quotient, Marvel kicked DC's sorry ass up and down the block back in those days. The John Byrne era of "Fantastic Four", in the mid-eighties, is to me a high point for that series - a high-water mark both artistically and thematically. "THOOOM!" is still one of my favourite words.
The Best Panteon of Gods and Heroes
The more I read comics, the more interesting, god-like characters I discovered. The Marvel and DC Universes each have their own creation myth, and are crammed full with hundreds upon hundreds of beings, possessing varying degrees of superhuman abilities, comprising a vast pop culture mythological hierarchy. It's so complex now, that it makes the Pantheons of Greek or Hindu dieties seem like a laundry list, and has done a lot to confuse and even alienate some new readers.
All in all, I suppose that all this would make pop culture - more specifically comics - my true religion.