The first comics I ever read were given to me by someone else. My mother bought me “G.I. Joe” and “X-Men Adventures”; my older sister’s boyfriend gave me all of his original Marvel “Star Wars” comics; my older cousin let me look at his “Amazing Spider-Man” issues — I didn’t discover comics in a vacuum. As a third grader in the school year immediately following the one-two punch of “Batman” and “X-Men’s” cartoon debuts, comics and superheroes were a very social thing.
I remember flipping through that same cousin’s binder of Marvel Universe Series III trading cards on the steps of my great-grandmother’s old home while the adults played touch football in the front yard. I remember calling dibs on Gambit every recess while other kids fought over who got to be Wolverine. I remember trips to Box Seat Cards and Comics with my mom after school and the thrill of finding a new issue of “X-Factor” in the magazine section of Kroger. I remember how our classroom would turn into a speakeasy for trading cards every time our teacher was occupied with one of the reading groups; the remaining two-thirds of the class would sneakily put signs up announcing they were “open” and we would slink around the room, trading dimes for Marvel Masterpieces. I remember the mass chaos caused when everyone in the third grade decided to roleplay X-Men on the playground, resulting in “playing X-Men” being banned — a fairly unenforceable rule.
I remember being metaphorically punched in the gut on the Monday after “X-Men’s” second season premiere when my enthusiasm — Morph was back from the dead! — was met with “I don’t care.” Fourth grade was going to be a lot different from third grade.
Suddenly I was alone in my love of comics. I don’t know what everyone else gravitated toward — sports? — because I didn’t follow them. The biggest pop culture event from fall 1993 to spring 1994 was the X-Men event “Fatal Attractions” as far as I was concerned, even if I was the only person talking about it. Comics went from being a social event to being a lonely one. I read every X-Men book I could find and collected all the cards, even though I had no one to trade with. From fifth to eighth grade I wrote and illustrated 29 issues of my own comic book — the incredibly ’90s sounding “X-Kids Unlimited” — for an audience of one. I was so obsessed with Marvel’s OverPower customizable card game that I made my own cards; I only got to actually play the game a few times a year on family trips to East Tennessee where my cousins lived. Comics weren’t a social or shared experience for me for well over a decade.
Instead, comics were what I retreated into. Kids I once called my friends became interested in other things — including teasing me. My new friends, the ones in the X-Books, they didn’t make fun of me. In fact, in the days in-between new issues, I was a mutant superhero and I lived in the X-Mansion and my best friends were Nightcrawler and Cannonball. That’s how I got through the rest of elementary school — alone with the company of my best fictional friends.
Middle school sucked. I was older, so pretending that my lack of friends was due to anti-mutant prejudice — I was a super powerful mutant that once hosted the Phoenix Force, by the way — no longer worked. Thankfully “X-Force” matured right along with me and Joe Kelly’s “Deadpool,” simultaneously the darkest and funniest comic I had read up to that point, hit the grocery store magazine racks. I kept the latest issue of every comic I collected in special three-ring binder polybags and, during study hall every day, a few kids would borrow them to read. The “no talking” rule kept me from forging any real comic connections with these people, though; I loaned and they read in silence.
Surprisingly, high school was great. I discovered MTV and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and rock and roll and a previously untapped strength that allowed me to aggressively pursue healthy friendships and maintain them for four years. I still didn’t know anyone else that read comics; the same held true for college as well. Considering how I live my life now, working in the comic book industry and writing these words on a laptop with a “Giant-Size X-Men” #1 skin on it while sitting in an office packed with nearly 5,000 single issues and well over 100 action figures in it, it’s crazy to think that people that know me from high school and college don’t immediately associate me with comics. This was all internal back then.
I bring all this personal history up because the level with which social media has completely obliterated the way I used to interact with comics has been on my mind a lot over the past few days. I know that growing up reading comics in a bubble has skewed my perspective; I know that’s why I have such a fierce loyalty to the X-Men, AKA X-The-Only-Friends-I-Had-In-Fourth-Grade. I’ve been thinking about this because being a comic fan was deceptively simpler back then. It was lonely, but I was free to enjoy whatever I wanted to read without having my opinion or experience affected by news or controversy. It was deceptively simple for me in the ’90s because I was able to remain ignorant about the controversies that were definitely going on twenty years ago. There was no Twitter to spread the word and there was only so much hot goss “Wizard” could cover in its non-price guide pages.
Now we all live comics. People have friends that read comics and can choose to only follow comic creators on social media. Fans can choose to just watch superhero TV shows and movies and still have a packed DVR. The social atmosphere that I craved in middle school is now everywhere and it’s nothing like I thought it would be.
Just since I started writing this piece, I have seen three updates to two currently ongoing comic culture issues pop up. The grind of keeping up with comics news has made me hate comics just a little. It makes me not want to read this week’s comics that await me on my iPad and it definitely makes me not want to write this. I feel exhausted and spent. When I was a kid and I wanted to talk to someone — anyone — about comics, I did not have this in mind. Granted, I had no idea that sexism and harassment and death threats would be part of the comics conversation. But they are. Every day. Every damn day.
That’s not just because Twitter exists, by the way; it’s because it’s been happening every day for decades and Twitter now gives everyone a voice — a voice that can be big enough to get million dollar corporations to take notice. That’s outstanding. That’s some superhero stuff right there. And however exhausted I am, all the mental energy I’ve expended trying to figure out the right words to type, is nothing compared to the emotional and mental toll taken on the people that find themselves a participant in one of these news stories.
As generally depressing as these stories are to read, opting out of the comic book discussions that take place on social media sites won’t make these issues go away. It alleviates you of being bummed out because you read about someone else’s real pain. I’ve been bummed out all week, but I’ve not experienced anything like the pain of being triggered by a piece of art or reading a former harasser’s name in big announcement headlines or having a person in power claim that people like me are ruining comics for everyone. One way to stop the bad news cycle is to stop creating bad news with threats, harassment and prejudice. Things weren’t better before social media came along; it was just easier for people with privilege to remain ignorant.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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