Thanksreading 2020: Secret Origins

For this year’s Thanksreading series, I’m exploring my development as a reader and giving thanks for the books and people who made me the lover of books that I am today. 

Out on Route 15 in Johnson, VT, near the intersection with Hog Back Road, there’s a tiny, unassuming shop called Buggyman Antiques. That’s where this story begins. Except it was 32 years ago, and the building wasn’t an antique shop back then.

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I was 13 then, spending the summer working on the farm my family managed. It was a weekend in late July, and we were having a barbecue. My mother, sister, and I drove over to Johnson to pick up a few groceries from Horner’s Market, the business that occupied what is now Buggyman. 

Horner’s was your quintessential quick stop, well-supplied with boring essentials, along with the important stuff like candy, soda, and magazines. The magazine rack there was my go-to for MAD Magazine, and I checked to see if there was a new issue. There wasn’t, but the latest SPIN had an interesting cover.

SPIN, to my mind back then, was Rolling Stone’s weirdly cool cousin. It talked about music I’d never heard of, had some ideas that were strange and alluring, and most adults steered clear of it. This particular issue – August 1988 – had a bizarre-looking rabbit on the cover, along with the headline: COMICS ARE IT.

I’d had the occasional dalliance with comic books in the past, picking up an issue of Spider-Man or Batman here or there. Maybe a discount three-pack of Charltons at Gaynes department store. And they were fine, but mostly they never held my attention for too long.

That SPIN cover, though … it had me downright intrigued. So I bought it.

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With some historical context now, the article inside was an early one in the wave of BIFF! BAM! POW! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore articles. Most of those articles were and remain reductionist and simplistic, pointing out the salaciousness of a swearing superhero or an illustrated bare breast. 

The SPIN piece was better than that. More in-depth and thoughtful.

First off, the goofy rabbit on the cover was Binky, the strung-out and stressed-out main character in Matt Groening’s Life In Hell comic strip. In a little over a year, Groening would transform pop culture forever by using his black-and-white rabbit family as the basis for a family everyone knows: The Simpsons.

The article itself was quite long, coming in at nine oversized and full-color pages, complete with a timeline of the evolution of comics. It began thus: 

1869: Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi, which uses comic illustrations to describe absurdist adventures, debuts.

This blew my mind.

As a kid whose primary exposure to books was Scholastic book orders and the occasional trip to WaldenBooks at the mall an hour away, all I knew of comics was Marvel, DC, and Charlton. This history was saying that comics had a long, rich history that went way beyond superheroes. 

Then there was the art.

The SPIN article was my first exposure to some of the all-time indie comics greats.

Charles Burns. The Hernandez Bros. Kanino Liberatore.

And series from not just indie publishers, but also mainstream ones that were turning the superhero paradigm of what a comic book book could be on its ear.

Stuff like Frank Miller’s now-classic Batman epic, The Dark Knight Returns. J.M. DeMatteis and Kent Williams’ painted vampire tale, Blood. And the already-classic-at-the-time manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira.

It would be years before I had access to an actual comic book shop and most of the creators and titles the article revealed to me. But here and there, I found a few. I still have the trade paperback collection of The Dark Knight Returns that I found at the local Kinney Drugs pharmacy of all places (a store I’d later get my first job at after leaving the farm). I read the first couple volumes of Akira at the WaldenBooks in South Burlington across several visits there. And I bought the full set of skinny Life In Hell collections from that same store. 

That particular issue of SPIN also exposed me to more than comics. It was my first time learning about Iggy Pop, Spike Lee, and Boogie Down Productions. There was an article about what we know call The Satanic Panic that I read again and again. And I read about the 4th International AIDS Conference, diving way deeper into the topic than the evening news ever gave the opportunity to do.

But that comic book article …

I pored over it for months to come. 

When we got home from Horner’s that afternoon, I at at the picnic table Dad had built and read it from start to finish. Then again that night in my room. I marveled (edit: no pun intended; ugh!) at the vast span of stories, illustration, and pure imagination contained within the titles not just mentioned in the article, but the ones I still wasn’t aware of. 

Comic books. What an amazing thing.

A couple years back I got an itch for that issue of SPIN. I have no idea what happened to my original copy. It probably fell apart and wound up in the trash. I found a copy on eBay and bought it. Since then, I’ve re-read the article several times. 

It still sets off the same synapses that it fired 32 years ago. And I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy not just many of the comics featured in the SPIN piece, but dozens and dozens of others. Not to mention the conversations I’ve had with comic creators, picking their brains and hearing stories about the creative process.

When it comes to comic books, the initial thrill that article gave me is matched only by two things: going to comic conventions to dig through quarter boxes for new titles and watching the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube

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(Quick aside: If you’re a comic fan and aren’t familiar with that channel – or if you are at all curious about the creative process that makes comics possible – you can do a lot worse than checking it out and listening to Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg revel in the glorious wonder of the medium.) 

Anyway, that’s it for this edition of Thanksreading. I’m forever grateful for that issue of SPIN and the love of comics that it began. 

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