By Aley Blackmore
Comics! The Ultimate Superpower
We’re all aware of the classic tropes seen in film and literature: the dashing hero rescuing the damsel in distress, the underdog overcoming the odds to save the day, the superpowered protagonist saving the world from evil, heroes and sidekicks working together to fight the villain. These themes take place in eras ranging from modern day to ancient times, and in settings as familiar as one’s hometown and as foreign as outer space. They appear in many formats, but no medium has ever captured or reworked these stories quite like comic books have.
I remember my first comic: an imaginative tale of three cartoonish skeleton cousins on a quest to find a new home after being driven from their old one—only to find themselves entangled in an age-old war. The series, fittingly named Bone, was a vivid and impactful story, despite the simple dialogue and black-and-white art. So launched my appreciation for visual storytelling. Like a strange addiction, I’ve been engrossed in the medium ever since.
“Bone is great example of how far comics and storytelling have come,” explains Ethan Slayton, a Portland-based artist who has worked on comic and illustration projects for over 15 years. “It makes you care about a character that is very cartoony, and weird, yet you feel for this character, and you become invested in the story anyway.”
Slayton, a tall man with a trimmed brown beard, round eyeglasses, and a friendly smile, greets me in a coffee shop one chilly afternoon with a copy of his current project, a fantasy comic called Dark Anna. The cover displays a dark scene of a woman submerged underwater, fighting her way out of the clutches of a few large, purple tentacles. The comic itself is not terribly long, only about 24 pages, and words 1ST ISSUE sit prominently on the cover. Slayton tells me this issue took about five months to complete, and throughout the process, he worked with the writer of Dark Anna, Aaron Duran, to make sure the art supported the story Duran had envisioned (Slayton). According to Slayton, when it came to designing the look of the comic, he enjoyed the creative freedom of forming characters and environments from scratch, but still found it challenging to make visuals that matched the author’s interpretation. As Slayton puts it, “it’s [Duran’s] baby, so I have to respect that”.
For Slayton, drawing as a profession has always been what he’s wanted to pursue. “As you get older, you realize what you’re good at, what you wanna do, really, and what you wanna contribute,” he says. Slayton has always enjoyed drawing, but his passion for storytelling stems from a specific time in his childhood: when he and his father traveled to a Buddhist temple in Boston when Slayton was 8 years old. During the visit, Slayton’s father, a professional writer, bought a few comics, and as soon as Slayton began reading them he was hooked on the other worlds those stories offered. Slayton would also attend Shakespeare festivals with his father, so for him, storytelling was omnipresent. It was only natural for him to choose to pursue the subject for a living. Since Slayton knew powerful stories could be told with the simplest artwork, he found that the best way he could tell his stories was by creating illustrations and comics (Slayton).
It seems to me that comics, with their storytelling capabilities, are their own kind of superpower, and Slayton is not the only person affected by their compelling force of pictures and words. People of all ages enjoy comics, and their collective appreciation has formed a worldwide community of creators and readers—all with different tastes, but all with a shared passion for imagery. In order to experience this comic culture, there is no better place to go than a comic shop, where both readers and artists alike gather.
Cosmic Monkey Comics is a popular shop in northeastern Portland, Oregon, and has such an extensive stock and distinct character that it helped give Portland the reputation of a comic city (Harper). When I first enter the building, which is tucked between a bicycle gallery and a coffee shop, the first thing I notice is the sheer amount of books: rows and rows of comics of all sizes and genres fill the interior of the shop to the brim. When I take it in altogether, the shop is chaos controlled—the shelves of various comic books and cartoon merchandise overwhelm the eye against a backdrop of movie posters and guest art, all drawings of monkeys, that line the colorful walls. Only a few people mill around inside—some kneel in front of shelves or flip through books on a loft tucked in the back while others wander curiously into a side room labeled BACK ISSUES. I’m not sure which part of the shop I should approach first; I could only imagine if someone else were entering this world of comic books for the first time. I don’t think they would know where to begin.
“Comics can be hard to get into” agrees Tim Goodyear, an employee at Cosmic Monkey. “You need to know which shop to go to, what you’re looking for, and be willing to buy it. You have to want to read comics.” Goodyear, a tall, open-faced man with a mustache and brown hair ending at his mid-back, has been reading comics his whole life. His calm and laid-back demeanor fits right into the atmosphere of the shop, as if he were made to work with comics. Like Slayton, he owes some of his interest in the medium to how available it was in the past. “When I was a kid, comics were everywhere” he says. “You could go to a gas station, and the comics would be there. Getting a hot dog? There’d also be comics. You could get a comic, like, sure, why not?”
According to Goodyear, serial comic books’ popularity dropped in the past few decades, making physical copies harder to find. Those who want to read comics have to find specialty shops like Cosmic Monkey or order comics from online distributors, and even then they have to know what they’re looking for. Goodyear believes that part of the decline in comic book fans has to do with the comic superheroes celebrated by major publishers like Marvel and DC. Due to the popularity that Superman and other comic heroes gained when first introduced in the 1930’s, comic publishers focused primarily on that genre to find success, which means those who weren’t interested in costumed crusaders had nothing to read (Gabilliet, Beaty, and Nguyen 19).
“[Superhero stories] pushed a lot of people out of comics, because they’re not finding anything for themselves there,” Goodyear explains. He then pauses the conversation to welcome a rain-swept family of three as they enter the shop before continuing again. “I think if [mainstream] comic culture would open up more they would find more people, [because] people’s tastes are much more varied than what mainstream companies will back” (Goodyear). By speaking of mainstream culture, Goodyear is referring to those few lucky publishers and comics that not only survived over the years, but thrived, such as Marvel and D.C. and their superpowered legacies.
Upon browsing the shelves of Cosmic Monkey, I understand what Goodyear means. There is no lack of books about your average superhero, sure, but there are also plenty that deviate from that genre, ranging from medieval fantasy adventure to modern-day stories dealing with gender and sexual identity. I am surprised I haven’t heard of these stories before—they look just as interesting as any Marvel comic. Mainstream media assigned superheroes as the face of comic books, but the variety I see in Cosmic Monkey leads me to believe that there’s so much more to the medium than superpowered beings.
Goodyear explains that pop culture comics, or comics that feature popular stories like those of Superman and Captain America, don’t tend to push social issues. “Noncommercial comics have more commitment and freedom,” he says, “and some people will tend to deal more in that genre, especially smaller publishers” (Goodyear). For this reason, webcomics, or comics created digitally and only published online, have become a more popular medium, since presenting media online allows more creative freedom to the artist. Creators are no longer limited to making only what publishers will want to see (Melançon). This method of publication comes with its own challenges—if webcomic artists hope to make a profit off their work, they must also manage their own merchandising and advertising. “You have to be a good businessperson to make a comic and pull money off the internet from that comic,” Goodyear explains.
Goodyear also believes that, regardless of the format, new readers still might not be interested in comics because they have trouble reading them. “A lot of people don’t understand how to read comics, at all,” explains Goodyear. “It’s a form of literacy. You have to decode art and written language, and art is the right side of the brain, and language is the left. It’s one of the only things that humans do that actively integrates right and left brain thinking together, which is tricky. And it’s irritating and painful for some people, especially the older they get, the less likely they are to be receptive to that.” I was surprised by this assertion, because I’m so used to the stigma that comics are simple, and therefore meant for kids. I had never considered them as a kind of mental exercise.
Even if comics are hard for some to read, their “childish” simplicity is still no flaw. In fact, Slayton believes one of comics’ strengths is their ability to communicate to a wider audience. Because they use pictures, comics tell stories that people of all backgrounds can follow. “They can speak to people with language barriers, just by going panel by panel with no words. It’s the basis of communication” (Slayton).
Despite comics’ potential to reach out to so many, their reputation discourages people from reading them. Originally, serial comics were designed and marketed only for kids, not adults, which made children become consumers beginning in the 1930’s (Gabilliet, Beaty, and Nguyen xviii). Even now, comics’ original marketing still impacts their image. “There’s a remaining culture from the 50’s that comics are supposed to be all for kids,” says Goodyear. “It has a literary crutch in terms of branding, comics have had a hard time getting out from that.”
I wondered, then, why so many people still choose to pursue comic illustration as a career if it has such a crippling reputation to begin with. Why spend so much time and passion working on a project if people only see your work as childish, or worse, unreadable? I doubt it would be easy for that work to pay off in the end. Slayton agrees that it’s difficult to make a profit off comics, and he says that some professionals have been making comics for years, yet still need an extra job to make a living. “The term is day-jobing,” he explains. “You work a day job that allows you to support your passion to draw comics, and, y’know, I do my best to keep a roof over my head with a day job, and then, on weekends, try to get as much work done as I can on the comic” (Slayton). In fact, for Slayton, there are two key things he needs in order to be happy with his career: to get paid for his work, and to do good work.
However, the real reason Slayton pursues a career in comics is for the stories they tell. “Stories tell truths,” he says. “They also tell ideas that might not be truths; they tell theory.” After a moment’s consideration, he continues. “I’ve always gotten a lot from stories. [And] for a time I thought artistic endeavors were selfish, but then I realized they give back, especially if you are honest with your storytelling. You’re not just doing it for a buck, you’re doing it because you believe in it, and I value that as a reader. Hopefully, I can give that idea back” (Slayton). Comics are so valuable because no other medium quite manages to combine art’s imagination with written language’s versatility. Perhaps that’s why people still read comics today, and why shops like Cosmic Monkey Comics still thrive—because of their nature, comics offer a reading experience that can’t be found anywhere else.
Slayton believes there’s even more to it than that. “As a communicative device, [comics] can tell any kind of story, personal stories,” he says. “They create a therapy. As a reader, you get what other people are trying to say. You don’t feel alone.” When I think back to when I read Bone for the first time, I understand the solace that Slayton is speaking about. Even though the comic’s art is monochrome, there is minimal to no detail, and the Bone cousins don’t even look like skeletons, I still felt like I was a part of their tale. When the characters were joyous, so was I, and when they were in pain, I hurt with them. I forgot whatever problems I was facing in my own life, because the adventure I was reading about was the only one that mattered. Comics deserve to overcome their limited readership, because they have so much more to offer than just superheroes. They alone have the unique power to combine language and art to tell stories in which we can immerse ourselves, allowing us to experience the artist’s ideas as our own. Comics are the ultimate superpower: they create worlds that I’ve never seen before, and never seem to forget.
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