We Are Comics

I’ve just submitted a cut-down version of the text below to the “We Are Comics” project, which is here.

It’s an interesting project, representing as it does a way of trying to reckon positively with some of the nasty social issues that have been happening in comic fandom over the last couple of years. I’ve taken part because unlike the other campaigning I’ve seen on social networks, which have mostly been about making sure that everyone knows that one is anti-rape-threats as loudly as possible under the auspices of “really giving the unpleasant elements what-for” – something that I don’t think is as helpful as it is cathartic – this one gives people the opportunity to positively reinforce the fact that this medium is accessible and inclusive and that all the prejudice people bring to it is redundant.

I mean, admittedly, it’s also just more echo for the echo chamber, but it just feels more right to me.

Anyway, so I wrote this, and then sliced it down for them:

I’m Nicolas Papaconstantinou, I’m first-gen English, 40 years old, married to a woman with whom I have a baby, two dogs and a house. I have a job in eLearning in HE. I get pretty confused about gender and race politics, and frustrated about which words you’re supposed to use and when, but I try not to be a dick about it.

I did my dissertation about comics back in 91-ish, when that was almost unheard of. I’ve also got a pretty bad comic habit.

I guess if anyone “is comics”, “I’m comics”. Not because of my social or gender demographic, but because I really, really love comics.

My paternal grandfather introduced me to comics when I was very young – old yellow-covered comics funnies featuring Laurel & Hardy, Richie Rich, Casper The Friendly Ghost – and maybe that’s why it never occurred to me that comics were just for boys – my grandfather was a respectable Greek Cypriot immigrant, working as a policeman in North London, and there was never any suggestion that he was weird for liking comics – or that they had to be about just one thing – I probably saw superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man and the Hulk on TV a while before I read about them in comics.

Prejudices like that wouldn’t kick in until I was in my teens in the 80s. Ah, the 80s. The death of all that is good.

Later, one wet summer holiday in Wales, a friend of the family brought two huge bags full of old UK comics – war and science fiction and some superhero reprints – to keep me occupied, and I think that’s when I really fell in love.

It’s hard to imagine now, but back then you could only get American spandex comics in odd newsagents. There were comic specialty shops, but a kid wouldn’t find them. They were grown up places, in bigger cities. I couldn’t swear to it, but I think they were mostly run by filthy progressive hippies. You had to take what you could get, and there wasn’t any sort of community around it. You bought your comics, and scuttled off and read them in the privacy of your bedroom, or with a select few buddies, like a weirdo.

Things are way better now, except when sometimes they’re not. For example, right now.

I almost get it. At least, I recognise the dysfunction that is feeling like something that belongs to you is under siege.

Comics appeal to readers and dreamers, and spandex comics in particular really appeal to people who have a hunger for heroism, or characters who clearly state their morality, and bullies who get beaten. The sort of people these worlds appeal to are also often the sort of people who end up on the margins during the formative years of their teens.

And comics are an incredibly powerful medium. More than movies, more than books, even. When you read a book, you have to provide the pictures, but most of the transitions and motivations and movements are laid out for you. When you read a comic, you inhabit the page. You finish the process. Comics are personal.

And at a time when other people are confusing, and you always feel at the bottom of the pile, and the opposite (or same) sex have become this weird combination of magical and hostile in your head, and maybe the people who are actively bullying you start to blur together with all of the other people who just seem to know how to fit in… well, comics are a bloody amazing way to escape from all that.

So you, and maybe a few of your mates. You find a comic shop. It’s one of the ones where the people running it are just grown up versions of you, and they seem to accept you, and suddenly you’re on the inside of a “community”. And you never have to deal with girls in there – maybe you convince yourself that that’s because girls just can’t handle how awesome the place is, rather than because it’s basically a prison you and your fellow geeks have created for themselves.

So the reading of comics – the work-out for your imagination, and the escape into cooler worlds – becomes a lifestyle… a way you identify.

And then some girl… a girl you’ve never heard of despite probably having read comics she had a part in making, because the grown-up in the shop hasn’t really done their mentoring job properly and you haven’t got a clue how comics are actually made, beyond a few superstar bro creators… writes something that feels like it’s an attack on your fortress. And because you’ve never had to reckon with someone approximately her shape and temperament in this fortress prison you’ve made for yourself, and she reminds you of those people outside - the scary ones at school that you retreated to comics to escape from, that maybe made you feel small for reading them – you lash out.

But this time, you’re puffed up, because she’s strayed onto your territory. You’ve got other people who look just like you around you, validating you. So you bully them.

I get it, but it’s broken. I get it, the world did it to you first, but it’s poisonous. At the point where sending rape threats seems like a funny thing to do, it should probably be obvious that you went wrong somewhere, but somehow at some point your moral compass stopped being Captain America or Superman (or even Wolverine, you know?) and started being the least socially capable guy working in your local comic shop.

But nobody started reading comics because they thought it’d be cool to hang out with a socially inadequate group of adults. It isn’t entirely your fault – there are lots of innate problems with the direct market model that don’t help with this shit, that force us into these weird spaces – but everyone starts reading comics because they like stories. Because they like escaping, or taking part in somebody else’s imagination. All this other closeted nonsense is about hiding away, keeping yourself and your preciousss safe. We’re supposed to grow out of this.

I was lucky, in a lot of ways… by accident, I grew up feeling sad for the people who didn’t understand how great this medium is, instead of feeling under siege from them. The best thing about comics, it has always seemed to me, is that literally any story can be told in them, and literally anyone can read them, and for the first half of my life, before Deadline and Tank Girl came along, I thought it was sad that everybody didn’t.

Now, a decent cross-section of everyone does, and it’s amazing. And those of us who got into this incredible medium when doing so meant being properly marginalised? We get to be cool now, or cool-ish. It’s tragic that some of us are still so broken down by the stuff that drove us into the comic shop basements that they’d sooner barricade themselves in than take their rightful place in society.

I ran a Forbidden Planet branch for six years, during the early growth of the trade paperback market, and the Manga boom. I am still pretty proud to have been instrumental in creating a friendly-to-all space to buy comics… even if I didn’t quite like women, as a lover of this medium, it just makes sense to get as many people to love it as possible.

Now I’m one third of a weekly podcast about comics – called MOMBcast, which you can find here - and I love the medium – if not always the fandom – more and more each year. I’ve even written a few.

I know I’m meant to disavow the trolls, but really I feel kind of bad for them. If I could, I would like to sit down and talk this stuff through with each and every one of them. Everybody else in comics seems so much nicer and happier than they are.

(Well, except the ones sending rape threats. If those guys are so content to wall themselves into the comics basement, I say we let them.)