At home I have a shelf of books that’s nothing but books about books and writing. There’s good old Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, 501 Must Read Books, an intriguing tome called How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (more of which later), and a fabulous title called The Book On the Bookshelf (yes, about bookshelves!) by Henry Petroski, among many others. Even the two bookends that hold them in place are book-shaped bookends. In short, I’m into books – and have a thing about themed bookends. One other such book on that shelf is The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser, the mystery writer. It’s a collection of essays contributed by various authors, such as J.G. Ballard, John Fowles, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood, all about the inspirations and obsessions that formed their reading habits, complete with lists of their ten favourite books. Even though I’m not a famous author, and no one gives a shit what I think, I thought I’d like to give this topic a go, as it is one that’s near and dear to my heart. I hope this series inspires you, dear reader, to think about the inspirations and ‘adventures’ behind your own reading habits.
Reading Adventure One: Comic Books, Graphic Novels and Manga
I have a self-mythologising memory of learning to read by reading comic books as a child. The publisher was Harvey and the comics mainly featured Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich and a little devil child who could fly called Hot Stuff, who was my favourite. I remember snuggling up in my parent’s bed on my own (my favourite place to read) trying to understand the words in the text balloons, sometimes asking mum for help. This reading was no doubt supplemented by some school learning, but the central act of trying and wanting to learn to read by myself with the help of that quintessential pop culture artefact, the comic book, is what I remember most.
I kept returning to the comic form, or ‘graphic novels’ as they came to be more respectably known, in the course of my reading life. Next there was Mad Magazine, where I was first exposed to satire and that wonderful meta treatment of pop culture. Then I became deeply obsessed with the graphic magazine called Heavy Metal, a cornucopia of contemporary pop culture articles, fantasy, sex and science fiction stories, drawn (and sometimes written) by fantastic artists like Moebius, Druillet, Corben, Caza and Charles Vess. Of the latter artist, in later years I bought an expensive and (frankly) unnecessary hardback copy of Ursula Le Guin’s Complete Earthsea, largely because it featured that artist’s work, whose delicate style I thought was a perfect fit for Ursula’s wonderful fantasy series. Between the years 1978 and 1985 I amassed a collection of the first 100 issues of that magazine (well, I didn’t have the first issue, but I picked that up a little later at Melbourne’s splendid Minotaur emporium). All in all, it was quite an education. I still have those magazines, and nothing but death will ever lead me to part with them.
My next comics reading adventure was Judge Dredd, about a bike riding law enforcer from the future post nuke city of Mega City One. Old JD, grim and determined; he never takes his helmet off, we never see his face (well, we did in the first Judge Dredd film with Sylvester Stallone, but that was more down to the actor’s vanity…). People who don’t know Dredd, or who figure it’s just escapist silliness, would be dead wrong. Well, yeah, there is some escapist silliness – the comic features a wry sense of humour at times, too – but there’s some pretty amazing story-telling and world building in there. From the Judge Child Quest to the Apocalypse War, where even major characters like Judge Giant are dispatched, the comic pulls no punches and tells some ripping, imaginative yarns, and even fills us in on some of Dredd’s back story. Pretty much a right-wing nightmare, he’s not a character who’s easy to like, but you admire him anyway. Like the Heavy Metal mags, I had every copy of the original series, except the first issue, and later picked that up at a comic store on the streets of London during my big European trip of 1990. I eventually moved on from Dredd, but the series has continued, with many iterations and reissues, and I can’t keep track of it anymore. My last exposure to it was the film Dredd, starring Karl Urban as Dredd, a damn fine flick. Much better than the Stallone and much more true to the spirit of the comics. And Urban does not take off his helmet, not even once, bless him.
Pretty much all the comics and graphic novels I read all had cinema treatments to them. Mad magazine of course had its National Lampoon films, and there was a pretty good Heavy Metal animated movie. Taking the reverse course, my next comics reading adventure after Dredd originated in the world of television. Buffy the Vampire Slayer went from approximately 1996 to 2003 with seven seasons in all. I loved it, and to this day it is my all-time favourite TV show. After the show finished there was initial talk of a new animated series, set during Buffy’s high school years and including her younger sister Dawn. But this got shelved. Then years later, Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, decided to extend the original series into further seasons in graphic novel form. So, after many years of avoiding the form, I found myself reading a graphic novel series again, because it was Buffy. This comic reboot took the show through five more seasons to season twelve, and included a spinoff series of Buffy side characters Angel and Faith that went for three seasons in parallel to the Buffy comics. The unlimited budget of the comic form allowed the writers to do things that the TV show could never afford, like a Mecha-Dawn (or Dawnzilla), and take us to the detailed future metropolis of the world of Fray, a future Slayer like Buffy. I especially enjoyed the storylines that featured Buffy and her crew – the ‘Scoobies’ – establishing their new base of operations in San Francisco, because I went there in 2010 and was able to spot many of the landmarks that featured in the backgrounds. Actually, during that trip, in Los Angeles I visited Buffy’s real life house, the exterior featured in the show, and also the original of Sunnydale High School, which is just down the road from Buffy’s house. It was all very welcome extra material, and I was grateful for more stories from the Buffyverse. My only gripe was that, after a terrific epic opening eighth season, the comic’s seasons runs got shorter and shorter. I have that eighth season in a lovely large format hardback form, and it goes to four volumes. I also have the final twelfth season in hardback, but that was only one measly volume in total.
Anyway, I’m a bit over the Buffy comics now. The publishers keep pushing out more series to make more money from us fans, but I’m not biting. It’s the way I feel about most of the comics industry now. It’s all about pushing more product and making variations on the same thing – spinoff series, reprints, comics based on superhero movies and TV show series, based on games series, Archie grows up, Archie gets laid, Archie marries Betty, marries Veronica…Enough.
But not quite. Lately I’ve become quite a fan of Japanese anime, and with that become a fan of some of the manga that much of it is based on. I guess it was inevitable that my interests would come around to that medium. It’s basically more comic books, but this time you read them from right to left, and they’re usually in black and white. I especially love the works of Rumiko Takahashi, a female mangaka (as they’re called in Japan) whose work includes Urusei Yatsura, Inuyusha and Ranma ½. Urusei is my favourite, with its anything goes science fiction setting, featuring the lovely alien girl, Lum. There’s also the Ghost In the Shell mangas and so many others that I want to explore, but really, I’m only just starting. I’ve come a long way since Casper and Hot Stuff, but I guess I’m not quite finished with the comic form just yet.
There has been a lot of talk about the negative effects of mediums like comic books, television, and lately the internet and social media, on reading habits and the attendant decline in imaginative ability, especially among children and teenagers. The different mediums definitely have different effects, good and bad, and these have been charted by commentators like Marshall McLuhan and Catharine Lumby. I tend to fall in line with this belief, though I agree with most good teachers and librarians that comics can make a great introduction to reading for kids (as they did for me). The problem, if problem it is, with comics and graphic novels is that the visuals may eventually dilute the imaginative power of straight text readings. I think reading, because it is abstract text, nourishes the imagination and provides a kind of conceptual mesh that helps us navigate that thing called reality. None of which means I will ever stop reading comics, graphic novels and manga. They put me in touch with that little boy who loved Casper and Hot Stuff.