Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How to Buy a Comic Book

I am a big reader. I generally go through a book or two a month, depending on whether I'm reading a super exciting page turner or one of The Big Important Classics that I occasionally force myself to endure, despite the insistence of my brain that they are so very very dull.

There is one massive literary genre that I've never really gotten into, though, and that is comic books. (And yes! I am going to call them comic books. I appreciate that the term is loaded and that many fanboys will yell at me and say that they are GRAPHIC NOVELS and who the hell do I think I am, a n00b? But that is, in fact, what I am. I'm a n00b. So deal with it. Because I'm nowhere near sophisticated enough to refer to them as graphic novels without sounding like some sort of sad hipster who listens to the Unicorns in horn-rimmed glasses while creating bad manga on an iPad that cost more than my rent. And while the Unicorns are, in fact, awesome, I am not going to call them graphic novels.)

So anyway, I've never really had anything against comic books. I definitely appreciate them as an art form, and I think that storytelling through pictures is just about the prettiest way to combine two media there is. But what can I say? I never hung out with the comic book crowd. I don't go to the comic book bars or listen to the comic book music or drink the comic book Kool-aid. But that doesn't mean I look down on comics. My thoughts on comics are like my thoughts on Portugal; I've never been to Portugal, and I don't really know anything about Portugal, but it's not because I have anything against Portugal. I bet there are actually a lot of cool and interesting things to do in Portugal and I'd probably have a really fun trip! But as of yet, I've never been. Just like I've never really read comic books.

Since you've gotten this far and have not yet ventured over to Wikipedia wondering what in god's name a comic book is, I'll assume that you have at least the same familiarity with comic books as I do. In which case, you might have noticed that comics books have pretty much taken over Hollywood. Every movie that is coming out these days was based on a comic book. Every fucking movie! And I've enjoyed a lot of these movies. 300 was great as both an action movie and a spectacle of delicious, delicious manflesh. V for Vendetta was artful and interesting and reminded me that Natalie Portman would probably be a supercool best friend and that her and I should start a rebellion together and she could tell me all about how awesome it is to be Natalie Portman. And then there's the Walking Dead series, which is pretty much the best thing to happen to zombies since evolution granted them the ability to run. And running was a big deal for zombies.

So I've come to realize that I'm missing out on a pretty key literary genre here. If all of these movies and shows are based on comic books, and they're all so fantabulously watchable, then it stands to reason that comic books should be fantabulously readable, right? That's why I've decided it is time for the Social Caterpillar to read comic books.

The problem is, the Social Caterpillar doesn't really have many friends who read comic books, and because I am the Social Caterpillar, I have no idea how to buy a comic book.

I tried going to the only comic book store I know in my hometown; it's near my office, so I decided to swing by after work. And here's something that my fellow comic n00bs might not know: Comic book stores are terrifying. Seriously - nothing could be more intimidating to a girl who's trying to pass as one of the crowd.

First, I had to figure out what section to look in. There was a bin near the front, something like the bins in used record stores, and it required commitment to see everything in there. I flicked through a few issues before I realized that this clearly was not going to go anywhere. All I could find were old Marvel comics boasting complicated plotlines in Issue #853 of some superhero or other that I would never be able to follow without understanding the whole mythology. But I was already flipping through the books, looking like I was supposed to know what I was doing, and a fellow customer had the audacity to look at me. And let me tell you - he could smell me. He knew. He could sense that I did not belong there. And I don't get it. I mean, sure, the average comic book connoisseur probably isn't a 5'2" young adult female in a black pencil skirt and pumps. I'm familiar with the stereotypes. But what I don't understand was the pure, utter revulsion pouring from this guy's skin.

So I was scared of him. I don't really understand what I did wrong, other than existing and being in the store with him and breathing and looking at things. He could sense an outsider; but he didn't understand that I wasn't a threat! I was only there because I wanted to be in! Nothing could have made me feel less welcome, though, so I decided to step away from the special for-true-fanboys-only bin. I headed to the back of the store, which was lined with weird board games I've never heard of and special editions of regular board games, like Star Wars Clue. (There may or may not have actually been Star Wars Clue. But there probably should be. I would play it.)

Near the board games I saw a section called "Graphic Novels," and I figured that was probably more the section I wanted to look through. But I was met with another problem almost right away. First of all, there were some people playing board games at little tables and they probably weren't paying attention to me at all, but in my head, they were staring and challenging me to pick out something completely not lame.

Second, I knew the kind of thing I was looking for: V for Vendetta, or Sin City, or something else by Frank Miller or Alan Moore that had reached me through Hollywood. (Note: At the time, I also wouldn't have been able to reference Alan Moore by name.) But I also didn't want to be that person - the one who's so culturally shallow that I could only appreciate something after Gerard Butler had introduced me to it through computer-enhanced abs and fight scenes with elephant monsters. So I wanted a comic or two that was like those stories but not necessarily those stories. And my expectations were far too high for my own capacity to buy things. But I didn't know how to ask for "something like those comics but not those comics because I don't want to be unsophisticated and seriously I swear I'm not a poser." I was relying on my ability to just find what I was looking for, but the section that made the most sense was not helpful at all.

Do you know what that "Graphic Novels" section was filled with? The same intimidating not-for-amateurs stuff that had been in the bin at the front. Spiderman issues that would require a lot of reading to catch up, and X-men that don't look anything like Hugh Jackman, and various superheroes called the Green ______ because apparently comic book writers don't understand that there are other colours. And I stood there for about five minutes, just looking, occasionally touching the pages of things, trying to decide whether I should just run for it. I began to realize that it was a terrible idea to come in here, because I could still feel everyone's eyes on me, and they knew, and I was trying to pretend I knew what I was looking for, but I didn't, and I wanted to leave, but if I decided to just walk out then I would be admitting defeat, and then the comic store wins. I found some Scott Pilgrim books, but for some reason I didn't want to buy them. I was interested in Scott Pilgrim, but I felt like buying the series that had recently inspired a Michael Cera movie would be like wearing a "go ahead, quiz me about comics, because you will win and I KNOW NOTHING" sign on my back. Why do I give a fuck what some people I'll never see again in my life care about me? Who the hell knows? But I am the Social Caterpillar, and I was actually a little bit afraid of buying the Scott Pilgrim series even though I really want to read it. I felt like I'd be ostracized. And a failure. And never welcome back.

Then, an employee approached me and asked if I was finding everything okay. And what do I tell him? I tell him I'm fine.

What the fuck? Fine? I wasn't fine! Why did I say I was fine? I had no clue what I was doing. This perfectly nice person wanted to help me find a purchase and I had no idea how to ask for help. So I ask you, dear reader! What does a person even friggin say when they're trying to engage in a new hobby but they don't know where to start?

"Oh! Yes! I would like some help, Mr. Comic Book Employee! Thank you! I don't read comics at all. Not that there's anything wrong with them! In fact, I would like to give them a try. I want Scott Pilgrim or, better yet, something like Scott Pilgrim because for some unexplained reason I feel like you'll laugh at me if I buy Scott Pilgrim. Because of Michael Cera." And then he'd laugh at me and I would have been right to be afraid of the store. 

I ended up leaving the store empty-handed, trying to play it off like they just didn't have the specific thing I was looking for. But they knew. Oh, they knew. And I was determined to buy a freaking comic - so one of the first things I did when I got home was get in touch with my dear friend, who you, Internet, might know as the notorious Maxx Nitro!

Maxx Nitro is something of a comic-reader. He is not necessarily a fanboy. But he appreciates a good dark comic about zombies or badasses or other wonderfulness along those lines. (Like badasses killing zombies.) And I realized I should probably have come to him in the first place. So I told him that I was looking to get into the comic book game and I asked him to help me find some issues that he thought I would like. And he graciously agreed to assist me on my mission to become roughly one-point-six percent hipper. Or less hip, depending on who you ask.

It felt like security. Like I was getting access to some sort of special club. Some sort of underground network of drug dealers and comic afficionados was going to help me score some of their scary, intimidating product. People, I was getting a visa to Portugal.

Maxx and I took a shopping trip back to the same store, and he taught me about Alan Moore. So I bought two of his books. And then we went to Chapters, which I previously didn't know had a comics section. And I don't care who knows it or how boring it makes me: Chapters felt right. I was among friends at Chapters. There were no intimidating fanboys playing Star Wars Clue in the corner and declaring that it was Boba Fett in the at-at with the blaster. There were no confusing toys on the wall that were ready to attack the outsider like an army of white blood cells in an allergy-ridden second-grader. And I had Maxx, who has pretty similar tastes, to help me figure out what to buy.

And I bought two more books! That is four comics! I am so proud, readers. But I have to admit something. Despite my honest attempt to try books that I didn't already have a moviewatcher's familiarity with, three of those comics are books that inspired movies: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Killing Joke (the inspiration for both Tim Burton's Batman and The Dark Knight). But Maxx Nitro satisfied my worries that buying these books doesn't make me a pathetic poser.

And maybe, next time, I'll be ready for Scott Pilgrim.

So be proud of me, and especially of my fourth purchase, Hopeless Savages, which has no association with Hollywood and looks super rock & roll and is bright pink. Because at the end of the day, I'm still just a young woman trying to navigate the scene in a pencil skirt and saucy pumps.


NOTE: I just realized, after typing all this out, that my post title implied I would give some sort of instruction. And I didn't do that. So in the future I will not title my posts before I write them, because now I'm attached to my title and I don't want to change it. So. Here's how to buy a comic book, if you're a n00b like me:

1. Make sure you are functionally literate, or else you're not going to enjoy the comic book.
2. You should probably also make sure you're not severely afraid of zombies. Zombies have a big role in contemporary comics.
3. GO TO CHAPTERS. Stay away from the comic book stores, at least for now. They are scary. They are not for you. You will not be welcome there. You need training first.
4. If you must go to the comic book store, implement the buddy system. This will safeguard you against intimidation and provide a buffer between your pitiful uninitiated brain and the Store of Fanboys. I recommend Maxx Nitro, but you can pick your own buddy if you want. And you should probably buy him a beer for helping you out.
5. Yes, Maxx, I will buy you a beer.

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