A few weeks back Reihan Salam wrote a review of Y: The Last Man at Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic.com blog, in which he included a wonderful description of the attraction of comic books and how they can be particularly alluring for the kind of introverted adolescents that he and I once were. Reihan writes:
Unlike my older and smarter sisters, I wasn’t much of a reader as a small kid. But then, in a stroke of genius, my eldest sister gave me a bunch of comic books and a They Might Be Giants CD for my tenth or eleventh birthday. And so I was doomed to be an incorrigible nerd for the rest of my life. The comic books (an Uncanny X-Men from the dense and confusing time the team was laying low in Australia while battling Reavers, and a few other Marvel titles) blew my mind. I soon became an obsessive collector, aided and abetted by my father. …I shudder to think about how much money I badgered and pestered him to spend, but I also know that comic books filled me with curiosity about the wider world.
This was in the days before Wikipedia, when learning the minutiae of the Marvel Universe, and the DC Universe and Nexus and Magnus, Robot Fighterand all the rest, was a serious undertaking. Definitely not for dabblers. Pretty soon I knew virtually everything there was to know. I even badgered my father into taking me to a comic book convention at the old Hotel Pennsylvania, where I blew my “savings” on an old-ish Uncanny X-Men from a patent lawyer who was probably younger than I am now.
I identify with Reihan’s story a great deal, and not just because he name checks They Might Be Giants. I personally had a different “gateway” into comics fandom than he did, but afterwards I traversed a story arc very much like his. I even had a similar experience of plunking down way too much of my parents’ money for a John Byrne autographed issue of Uncanny X-Men at a “flea market” type comic book sale.
While I had enjoyed individual comic stories even when I was a pre-literate youngster, my enthusiasm didn’t really bloom until I became aware that each of these stories had their place in a wider universe of comic book mythos, and that mythos accumulated over time while retaining (sometimes) an internally consistent continuity. When that clicked the obsession that Reihan describes kicked in. As they say, read the whole thing. Or if you prefer, ATSRTWT.
As evocative as Reihan’s piece is, the best crystallization of the excitement that motivated former fanboys like can be found the passage below from C.S. Lewis.
The third glimpse [of Joy] came through poetry…. I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner’s Drapa and read, ‘I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful Is dead, is dead.’ …I knew nothing about Balder, but instantly I was uplifted…. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described…. The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else…. I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic… in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.
It’s a great encapsulation of what got me so excited by comics and the “joy” that obsessive fans find in comics, Tolkien, etc. that stuck with me ever since I first read it during college.