Comics have always been a huge part of my life, from my questionable six year old speculator phase (when I was convinced that any issue #1 was a prospective goldmine) to my pretentious preteen obsessions with the “great works” of comics (feverishly studying anything labeled with the words “sequential storytelling”). But it wasn’t until I reached my mid-teens and hit one of the most temporarily devastating periods of my life that I can really say I found a comic that changed my life.
When I was sixteen, I began to experience some strange changes in how my body and brain worked, or more importantly how they didn’t. I had not long before lost one of my closest friends to suicide, so I was already feeling an almost unknowable distance to normality and maybe that’s why I didn’t see the signs. The first time it happened I was home alone. I woke up on the floor, my face bruised and aching on one side. I didn’t think much of it. See, when you’re young and you spend nights barely sleeping, drinking in dark dank spaces trying to work out exactly what it is that you’re missing, and you spend your days desperately trying to make yourself enough, you find yourself saying, “Hey, this is just one of those things.”
Unfortunately, relentlessly losing consciousness at inopportune moments is rarely “just one of those things” and after months of uncertainty and weeks in and out of hospital, I was diagnosed with Atonic Frontal Lobe Epilepsy. For the first few months of my diagnosis I couldn’t do much except stay in bed, sleep, and eventually read. In this time I turned to a lot of the things I’d loved as a child, seeking out some kind of security and familiarity in what was quickly turning out to be a very unfamiliar existence. One of the things that I revisited regularly during this time were my old X-Men books.
The stories of Xavier’s Institute for Gifted Students had long been a place I’d escaped to as a child, but suddenly this simple analogue for puberty took on a whole different meaning. The feeling of not knowing your own body, being unable to control it, and it manifesting energy in ways you didn’t understand or even actively partake in was now an acutely relatable experience in a widely unrecognisable world.
Rediscovering these stories that I’d always loved for their political undertones, relatively diverse roster, and wildly imaginative universe as something that now related directly to me and my then current situation was incredibly important. I’d often navigated the world through the lens of comics, one of my first true obsessions being Love and Rockets. A that book that felt like the first time I saw women who I felt looked and loved like me, that told stories of disabled people like me and many of my childhood friends. But my rediscovery of mutants at a time when I’d almost died and then seemingly been reborn in what felt like a completely different body was revelatory.
Using comics as a coping mechanism has become a natural response for me, and as the dumpster fire that has been 2016 slowly burns out, I’ve been inspired to try and write things that focus on the positives, on things that we love, things that have inspired us, driven us, and even just made us that little bit happier. I decided to reach out to some of my favorite creators to ask them which books have made that positive impact on their life, or why not finding that representation drives us to create art for ourselves and other people like us.
“Comic that changed my life” is a pretty big statement. I’m racking my brain for the comic that was a pivotal moment in my life and career. I never had that moment of feeling represented in a comic for the first time. But I think I might not have ever pursued a career in comics if not for webcomics, and I remember my mind being blown when I discovered Derek Kirk Kim’s work. Particularly Same Difference, which he was hosting online. It was thrilling to me that it was so different from the superhero comics my brother read or strips in the newspaper, and you could tell these full, beautifully illustrated stories on the Internet. I devoured everything on his website, and not only was his work funny, bittersweet and relatable for a young 20-something like me, but he talked earnestly about being a comic creator. Seeing him talk openly about his career, even his mistakes, gave me courage to continue my own comic work; to accept that it might be a bumpy road, but the journey is still worth it.
I’ll admit this is kind of a big ask.
Comics have always been a part of my development, whether humming softly in the background or leading the band in the foreground. My dad would read them to my brother and me as kids–and took us to our first comic shop in Cleveland in the early ’80s–and my mom encouraged us because it taught us not just how to read but to love reading. And while superheroes dominated most of my reading through elementary, middle, and high school (I’ll always have a place in my heart for the New Mutants), it was in my late teens that I began to branch out. I was studying Japanese and it was a revelation to read Frank Miller’s Ronin and Hiroaki Samura’s gorgeous, brutal Blade of the Immortal, both of which did change my life…
But this isn’t about that. This is about another book entirely. (I can have more than one life-changing comic, can’t I?) As a freshman at college in Pittsburgh, I quickly discovered my local comic shop–The Phantom of the Attic–and it was there I happened upon the comic that rewrote the rules for me: Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn.
I don’t know what possessed me to pick it up, though the blurb on the back that proclaimed “Kyle Baker is god” didn’t hurt, but I’m glad I did. More than anything it reminded me that comics can be funny. After a decade plus of mutant angst, cool samurai, superhero deaths and rebirths, and everything else in between, Why I Hate Saturn was a breath of fresh air to laugh with a comic again. It was easy to forget that aspect of comics existed and could be expected so well. And it didn’t look like any other book I was reading then: the sepia tones, the playful lines, even the placement of the dialogue on the page. I didn’t know who this Kyle Baker was, but with this honest, hilarious book about brilliant, listless writer Anne Merkel, he’d tapped into something deep in my brain I didn’t even know laid dormant. Eighteen years later, it holds up remarkably, and it remains the only comic I consistently re-read at least once a year, and it still makes me laugh like it’s the first time.
I guess I’d have to say that the first American comic I read that engaged me intellectually Batman vs Grendel. I feel like the title foreshadowed deeper ideological and formal conflicts inside. That comic made me question the comic book hero archetypes and motives. Batman just seemed so two dimensional next to Grendel and the storytelling was far better than the superhero comics I would read at my friend’s house. Around this time I first saw Moebius’ work hanging on the wall in the comic store.
Later, maybe as a sophomore in high school, I’d discover Slow Jams in Jordan Crane’s Non magazine; that was transformative. I think that ruined me for most comics. The first comic I ever drew was heavily influenced by Slow Jams. What ever happened to David Choe? Non changed the way I looked for comics too. I was rewarded for digging and trying new things.
When I was maybe a junior at Pratt I discovered Moebius’ Arzach. That lead to the creation of my first Gratnin project, a ninja comic that had no dialogue. This was pivotal for me because from that point on I got really deliberate about panel to panel and space. Gratnin had to sink or swim on visual storytelling alone.
Shortly after this I picked up THB. The storytelling was great; the mark making was exceptional. This was someone who was DRAWING. The pages were interesting drawings. Also, THB fit in with all of the weird design magazines I’d get from Zakka or St. Marks bookstore. THB was smart design. This ruined me for many of the comics for which Slow Jams hadn’t already ruined me. Also, as a creator, Paul Pope was the first cartoonist I saw and thought, “Oh, this is a cool guy. Making comics could be cool.” I was an art school drop out.
When I saw Tekkonkinkureeto, it was a floppy. I was probably coming in Jim Hanley’s to find more Paul Pope, Moebius, or Dave Cooper. It was my first real experience with Gekiga I think. The drawing was right up my alley. I was already familiar with Matsumoto Taiyo’s artistic lineage, but it was great to see it used in comics so liberally. I also really appreciated how succinct the story was.
Ripple number one by Dave Cooper just combined great drawing, design packaging, and writing together in one great, lurid shit show. I don’t think you can see much of the influence of this comic in my work but it really gave me a lot of energy and love for the medium. I think I am still chasing that dragon whenever I cruise down an aisle in a comic book store.
Enigma – Milligan and Fegredo
When I first discovered comics and fell so in love with them I was about 15 and, flawed though they may be, I still look back on those books with serious love. Though it was not the VERY first comic book I read, X-Men #1 by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee was probably one of the first five comic books I read (and almost entirely because I recognized Rogue on the cover from the X-Men Animated Series, where I had recently fallen in love with her). That issue left an indelible mark. The kind of mark that turns a kid into an obsessive fan and in my case makes them want to not just read, but to create. At 15 I was particularly enamored of Rogue, who was so strong and powerful, yet also so vulnerable. At 15 I felt insanely vulnerable…like an open wound or a bundle of nerve endings, but I WANTED to be powerful like she was. I ached for her strength. It’s not crazy to say that Rogue is the entire initial reason I wanted to write comics.
But as an adult and as a comics professional, it’s obviously very different books that have inspired me to keep creating and more importantly to try to create better and more powerfully. Two issues (both, perhaps not surprisingly, from the same series) have really impacted me in the last few years. Bitch Planet #1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Chris Peter, and Clayton Cowles is one of the most well-constructed and masterful single comic books I’ve ever read. But it’s also one of the most surprising and important comics I’ve ever read. I put it down after my first read and it was like I could immediately feel this subtle but permanent shift in the world – almost like a radio station finally clicking in – the static evaporating…or maybe now I COULD hear the static that had been there all along? Either way it was a permanent change in me and how I perceived things. And it’s not like I was apolitical or uniformed prior to reading BP, but reading it absolutely re-shaped the ideas of the stories I wanted to tell, and the impact *I* wanted to make as a creator. The bad news for me is that DeConnick and her team are setting a VERY high bar so it’s gonna be A WHILE before I can get even close to creating at that level.
The other comic was Bitch Planet #3 by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Robert Wilson IV, Chris Peter, & Clayton Cowles, and it was somehow about all the same things that Bitch Planet #1 (and the series in general) was about, but it was also about a subject that almost never gets tackled in media – fat acceptance. And it approached fat acceptance in such a forward thinking and bold way, as a fat woman, I’ll tell you, my mind was blown. And it shouldn’t have been, because I should have already learned in BP #1 that this was where this series was headed – that it was more than just a comic book – it was a MOVEMENT.
And not every comic could (or should?) be that, but it sure as hell made an impact on me and how I approach my own comics. It’s exactly what I needed as a creator and a reader.