It was, of course, that moment when talking to strangers that I dread, when said stranger finds out that I write about comic books for a living, and says "Do they still make those?" in a way that's both entirely genuine and unsnarky and somehow more upsetting and offensive than if it had been the snarkiest, snippiest comment possible (I sometimes wonder what they'd do if I answered "No, I write about a dead art form that finished because you gave up on Super Friends all those years ago," but then I remember that with the pop cultural landscape being what it is in these post-modern times, that that could theoretically be possible). After explaining that, yes, it's a living and - in many ways - thriving medium, I got the inevitable follow-up question, which also happens to be the one I always enjoy answering: "So what would you recommend?"
The reason why I love answering this question isn't because I like to give advice like that or try to second guess people's tastes (In actuality, I actually kind of hate that part; I feel this imagined pressure not to mess it up, and worry that maybe the person I'm talking to might be the kind of contrarian who'll like creator X's first, second and fourth books but hate the third with an inexplicable passion hotter than a million suns), but because - without fail, pretty much - whoever asks that question having opened with the "Do they still make those?" one will have a very strict definition of comics in their mind that goes something like "Those things I read as a kid and maybe Watchmen and Maus at best." The guy I was talking to at this dinner happily took that role, telling me that he'd pretty much thought that Maus was the last stand of a dying art that was probably followed by creators realizing that such complexity belongs more to prose or the moving picture or anything other than comic books, because, hey! Peanuts! Archie! (Okay, that last part was implied, at most. But still, come on.)
What's great about answering the question is that, unless their response to "Well, what do you normally read/watch?" is superheroes or My Little Pony or whatever, the suggestion of a book or series almost always comes as a surprise. "Wow, they do comics about that?" is a great thing to hear, because the answer is always Yes, yes, they do, and you get that momentary glow of "You know, comics are just great" when you realize how much great material has come out in recent years, and how varied that material can be. I've found myself recommending things like Finder and The War at Ellsmere and Laika and Eddie Campbell's Alec (which, to be fair, I recommend at the drop of a hat; "Do you like people? You should read Alec!") and Cages and so on and so on, and there's something just plain nice about being able to offer up books and stories that you love so much, even with the nervousness about "What if they have bad taste?"
This particular guy, he told me that he loved biographies of scientists, so I told him to grab Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's Feynman bio of Richard Feynman from last year. He was appropriately surprised, amused and promised to look for it online when he got home. I kind of love the idea that that could lead him to Ottaviani's other books, and from there to a whole new medium filled with good stuff. As good as the shortbread for dessert may have been, that would still be the best possible thing to come out of that entire meal.