I first got into comic books when I was eight years old, which means I’ve been a comic book fan for 3/4 of my entire life. When you’re a fan of something for so long it become such an engrained part of who you are as a person. And while all the people in my life know me as a comic book fan and creator, I don’t think that any of them understand the real reason why I got into comics in the first place.
Unlike most comic book fans that pick up the hobby in an organic kind of way, my first foray into comics seems almost like a coldly calculated decision in retrospect. And while most comic book fans can admit to feeling like outcasts growing up because of their hobby of choice, I actually took to comics as a way to fit in—or rather, to fit in with straight guys.
Why being gay made me a comic fanboy
Like a lot of other gay guys, most of my friends growing up were girls. In my case a lot of that was simply due to geography. In my neighborhood there were no other kids the exact same age as me. There were a bunch of girls who were a grade younger than me and a bunch of boys who were a few grades older than me and I was just this weird queer kid stuck in the middle. So obviously I chose the path of least resistance and made friends with the girls, instead of working my way up from the bottom of the pecking order with the boys.
But the thing about being a boy who is mostly friends with girls is that you always fall into situations where you’re divided up by gender and separated from all of your friends. I think every gay kid growing up dreaded those times when the boys and the girls would be split apart and you’d start to feel like a lamb amongst a pack of wolves. So when those situations would arise, you’d need to have a coping mechanism, something that would help you navigate the world of masculinity which seems foreign and terrifying.
So for me, comics became that coping mechanism.
Image Source: i09.com
I mean, I had dabbled in comics here and there before—things like the Sunday paper, the comics they printed in Disney Adventure magazine, stuff like that. And I was already acquainted enough with superheroes from cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Darkwing Duck, so making the transition to comic books seemed just like a natural step to take. But even still, there was nothing natural about my decision to take that step.
I remember the exact moment when I crossed over that threshold and decided to become a comic book fan. I was on the bus on the way to school and somehow I had gotten shuffled into the back where the older boys in my neighborhood were sitting. They were all in the middle of a discussion that had started at the bus stop about comic books.
But as I was listening to their conversation, something just sort of clicked with me. The characters they were talking about—Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and so on—these were characters I sort of knew. These were giant pop culture icons that worked their way into everything. I hadn’t actively participated in comic fandom up until that point, but somehow I could already speak some of the language.
As a gay kid trying to fit in with other males, having the right vocabulary is crucial for opening up lines of communication. Like when guys start talking about sports or cars and shit, I just have no idea what any of it means. They might as well be speaking a foreign language. But the names these boys were throwing around on the bus that morning, they were characters I recognized. I felt confident that this was a world I could be a part of, something that would connect me with other males without me having to compromise my authenticity.
In testing my theory, I decided to try and speak to these strange creatures using their native tongue. Since this was the 90’s, the conversation they were having had been about the different comics they owned that were worth money. They bragged about having the first appearance of this character or the death of that character. And it was clear that everybody was just bullshitting in the way that kids do, but I felt confident that I could throw down my own bullshit and be a part of the group for a chance.
Image Credit: marvel.wikia.com
Now this is the part where I know that I was always meant to be a comic book fanboy, because I somehow managed to come up with some pretty impressive bullshit (for the time.) I told those boys that my dad owned the second issue of The Incredible Hulk. Somehow I knew that going back too far, to say the Golden Age of comics, would be too unbelievable. Some Jedi part of me just happened to pick a Marvel character from the Silver Age, during a time period where my dad might have actually been able to buy the comic. And I also knew it was too unbelievable to pick the first issue, but the second issue was more realistic while still just as impressive.
For whatever reason my bullshit actually worked too— they bought the lie and even seemed somewhat impressed by it. I felt like I had something new in my hands, a new set of tools to help me navigate the scary world of masculinity. But I also knew I couldn’t fake it for long, at some point I’d have to actually start reading comics.
My first comics
I wasted no time after that day on the bus jumping headfirst into the world of comic books. Fortunately for me, this was back when you could buy comics on a spinner rack pretty much anywhere. The next time we went grocery shopping I had my mom bring me to the little book store that was located in the same strip mall as our grocery store. This was already a pretty established routine for us, since I was a voracious reader as a kid and I think that helped make it easier for me to make the leap into comics. I was trying something new in the same place where I bought Judy Blume books—it felt like this was already part of a world I was familiar with.
I remember the book store had two big spinner racks of comic books, which as a little kid who had never ventured into comics, felt somewhat overwhelming. There were so many choices and I wanted something that had a lot of characters. This was almost more of a research trip than anything else. I needed a crash course in comic books, I needed a wider vocabulary to work with, so I picked out a comic that I thought would give me the biggest bang for my buck.
That comic, strangely enough, was Marvel’s What If? #42 which was “What if Spider-Man Had Kept His Six Arms.”
Image Credit: marvel.wikia.com
This book had everything! Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Doc Ock, the Lizard, Morbius, a whole rundown of Spidey’s rogues gallery—and a story that I didn’t fully understand. This was my first comic, I had no idea what “What If” meant and I had nothing of comparison to help me realize that this wasn’t the normal continuity.
I pretty much went the first year of my life as a comic book fan convinced that Spider-Man still had six arms and that he just kept them invisible thanks to an invention by Mr. Fantastic. I even had all these fan theories about how he was the strongest because you never saw his extra arms so he could just pummel the shit out of bad guys and they’d be like “how is he even doing this?”
This comic became my bible. I would carry it around with me everywhere, still in the original paper bag from the book store (I didn’t understand poly bagging yet) and would study it whenever I had the chance. I also had this weird need to be seen reading it, to attract to me the people who would help me navigate this new world or to impress onto people that I had a masculine side too.
My next comic book was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic from the Archie Comics run. This one was bought out of sheer Turtle fandom because it was some special team-up issue that had all the Turtles and their various allies fighting together. It was a fun book, but it didn’t help me on my quest to understand the world of comics, especially because the Turtles were starting to wane in popularity by then.
But my third comic book—that changed everything. That changed me as a person, as a comic book fan, as a writer—it was groundbreaking. That comic was X-Men Adventures #1.
How the X-Men changed everything
For those of you who don’t know, X-Men Adventures was basically just a comic book adaptation of the X-Men animated series that aired on Fox in the 90s. When I picked up the first issue of X-Men Adventures, I didn’t know what it was, I just knew that it was a first issue and that meant it had special value, since again this is the 90s we’re talking about.
But I also already had this notion that the X-Men were pretty cool. I had played the X-Men arcade game a few times and thought the characters were all so interesting and weird and like nothing I had seen before. This just seemed like the best way for me to learn more about them and to jump into a series right when it was starting.
Image Credit: marvel.wikia.com
Of course, I’d shortly discover that the comic was just an adaptation of the cartoon because the cartoon became my goddamn life for a while. I taped every episode, watched it repeatedly, I became obsessed with this show, these characters and the comics that they spun out of.
I started playing X-Men with kids on the playground and it turned into this entire X-Men club where we all had our own reserved character to play as, almost like we had these secret alter egos. When I first started playing, I always wanted to be Storm. To me, she was just the coolest and the most powerful. She was even the first X-Men action figure I owned. But hiding behind how powerful Storm was only worked for so long. At some point I had to man up and pick a male character.
So I started playing as Wolverine instead. I figured that if I was going to have to play a male character, then I’d be the best fucking one. Wolverine’s sense of machismo never really bothered me because he had this wild, uncontrolled animal side that I could easily tap into. He had all this pain in his past and he didn’t shy away from feeling it—he’d use it to feed into his power. So I never worried about being masculine enough to play Wolverine because flying into a berserker rage all the time was a cathartic release that I looked forward to every afternoon at recess.
The X-Men gave me a sense of community, but it wasn’t relegated to just the playground either. The themes of tolerance and acceptance helped me feel more comfortable with myself. Sure the X-Men had their struggles, but they also had support, they were a family. The ideas that X-Men presented became a sort of litmus test for me—if someone could get behind the X-Men, it meant they were more likely to be accepting of people who were different from them.
But most importantly, the X-Men helped me to accept myself. They showed me that there was a sort of power in being different and a responsibility to be true to your authentic self. It may be hard to be an outcast but it’s even harder trying to live as something you’re not.
I went into comics hoping to have a fun new hobby that would help me develop a masculine side but what I got out of it were the tools I’d need to realize that it’s okay if you don’t have a masculine side in the first place.
Why I write comics for my 8-year-old self
One piece of writing advice that I always hear from people is to write the kind of stories that you’d want to read, but have yet to exist. I feel like all writers do that anyway, but I usually take it a step further and reach back to the past. I try to think of the stories I’d want to read as a young queer trying to navigate comics for the first time.
I decided at an early age that I wanted to become a comic book writer. There wasn’t anything calculated about that decision, I just wanted to tell stories and entertain people. But as an adult trying to make my younger self’s dream a reality, I’ve felt this strong sense of responsibility to tell the right kind of stories, especially when I’m writing for a younger audience. I want to write the kind of comics that give the queer kids out there the strength they need to be their authentic selves.
That’s the energy that I put into all of my comics, no matter what the audience may be. And if I make a difference in just one person’s life, then I’ll feel like it’s all been worth it.
But obviously I’d totally love it if I could make a difference in like a bunch of people’s lives all at once.