When my kids were younger, I remember some parents worrying about children who only read comic books and picture books like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “Captain Underpants” and the like.
We want them to read real books, the parents said to me. You read a lot; don’t you agree?
I didn’t. With some guidance, kids should read what interests them, I said, to the disappointment of a few adults who thought I had more sense. (Sadly, I don’t.)
I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics, but hardly any heartwarming childhood literary classics. For every Beverly Cleary novel I got from the library, there were plenty more bad movie and TV novelizations I picked out from the rotating rack at the grocery store and struggled to finish. I’m pretty sure comics were a big reason I became a reader of books; I learned to love reading from comic books. Those Burt Reynolds movie tie-in novels? Not so much.
I’m fortunate to have found something I enjoyed and that I was allowed to enjoy it. I had parents who either supported or modeled reading as an activity in a house full of kids (5!), dogs (5!), cats (3!), other animals and various long-term houseguests. I needed a place to escape and comics, and later books, provided the getaway vehicle.
My parents didn’t seem overly interested in what I read, though they were a little concerned when a librarian told them I’d requested some Sidney Sheldon – which, to be fair, was totally true. Weirdly, there was a Sheldon short story or excerpt in one of our middle-school readers and I thought, I wonder what else this fella has written about? Embarrassment ensued when adults wondered about my interest in the work of the author of sexy 1970s paperbacks like “The Naked Face” and “The Other Side of Midnight.”
But something that gets lost in the discussions about comic books is that they can be an excellent referral system to discover other writers and books, films and TV series, and historical events. Sure, I probably learned more about World War II than say, the Constitution or Reconstruction, but Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos definitely fueled my interest in history.
I’m writing this as San Diego Comic-Con is taking place this week, returning to relative normality (but with masks and vax cards and other attempts to stem the spread of COVID-19 at the event). While the event can be seen as a catch-all punchline for jokes about nerds or an example of media conglomerates taking over formerly homespun fan events, the best thing about it is how so much of it is a display of good-natured fun and camaraderie . People are happy to be there and generally pretty nice to each other, which is a feat in crowded convention halls that always feel crowded, sweaty and hot.
“I love the joy of seeing everyone here,” a San Diego doctor Our told reporter Peter Larsen yesterday. “Everyone just trying to enjoy life.”
On the last day of the convention a few years ago, I remember seeing two men awkwardly embrace, saying something like, “I can’t believe it’s over already. I’ll see you again next year, pal.” It was lovely.
And I’ve had wonderful interactions with writers and artists there when just running into them on the floor, like writers Tom King and VE Schwab. On our way out of WonderCon, my kids and I stopped to thank Darwyn Cooke for his great “DC: The New Frontier” series, and the artist and writer, who died not long after in 2016, drew pictures on our badges in return.
Of course, there are lots of ways the larger comic book culture fails: inequality of representation and pay; lack of diversity in its content and the industry; troll-like fans who make it an unwelcoming place for women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
Or, as someone recently bemoaned, the seeming inability to make a single Batman movie that you can take a small child to without worrying it’ll be too dark and violent. Holy brooding nihilism, Robin!
No hero is just going to swing in and make it all better. Changes need to come, as many have, from within the industry through fans speaking up and being heard. When I think about the masses of people at Comic-Con who interact so well, change seems possible.
So, back to reading and comic books and Comic-Con: I’m hoping the kids there this year find some great new titles, as well as maybe some I’ve enjoyed, like the Amulet series or “Zita the Space Girl” or “Dragon Hoops” or “Stickman Odyssey” or “Sheets” or “Bone” or the Three Thieves series and plenty more.
May they have a good time and come away with something they love to read.
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Speaking of loving to read, this might be that part of the summer where you or your kids are getting a little antsy and need a distraction.
How about going to the library? I previously wrote about summer reading eventsand here’s a thing that surprised me: They still are going on.
You might, like one reader you know, earn yourself a coffee mug like this:
Or join the Los Angeles Public Library summer reading event, which is still seeking readers because I just got an email about it. And a former colleague shared on social media that she’d just signed up for a late summer reading challenge.
So if you like reading and you like swag, check out your local branch.
Got any recommendations for me? Please send them to email@example.com and they might appear in the column.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Jim Shepard shares the books and people who had an impact on his life
Jim Shepard’s seven novels include “The Book of Aron,” which won multiple awards including the Sophie Brody Medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature, the Harold Ribalow Award for Jewish Literature, the PEN/New England Award for Fiction, and the Clark Fiction Prize. He’s also written five short story collections, including (my favorites) “Like You’d Understand, Anyway” and “Love and Hydrogen.” A winner of numerous awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Shepard teaches at Williams College and lives with his wife and three beagles in Massachusetts. His most recent novel, “Phase Six,” is now out in paperback.
Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?
I remember being delighted and obsessed with two of the “All About” books for children: “All About Dinosaurs” and “All About Volcanoes.” Giant monsters that my teachers had to admit existed! Catastrophes that ended whole civilizations! In that regard, I haven’t changed much.
Q. Can you recall a book that you thought must have been written just for you?
Not a book, exactly, but a throwaway detail within a book. I’d been reading a biography of Reinhold Messner, the Italian-German mountaineer who did things like climb Everest without oxygen, thinking I might want to write about him, and had gotten almost all the way to the end of the book without having been inspired by anything (though his chronicle was certainly more than compelling enough in objective terms) when he compared the lunacy of some expedition about which he disapproved to “that expedition that Himmler had gotten together in the thirties to go in search of the Yeti.” I sat up in my chair. Could that actually have been true? I looked it up, and it turned out it was. And I thought: did Himmler do that just so I could write about it?
Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?
I do. Although I’m not usually blown away by books of fiction that use photographs on their covers, two of my very favorite covers do: Carol Devine Carson’s cover for Tobias Wolff’s story collection “The Night in Question,” which uses a gorgeous black and white photograph of an oncoming train, and Chip Kidd’s cover for Iréne Némirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” which uses a colorized photograph of refugees on a French city street.
Q. What are you reading now?
I just finished Thomas Halliday’s “Otherlands” and Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.” The former is a wonderfully evocative tour of 16 geological periods extending back 550 million years — from the Pleistocene all the way to the Pre-Cambrian, working backwards in time — based on 16 specific fossil sites. Halliday, a paleobiologist, makes each of these distant worlds vivid and concrete, and it’s a wonderfully reassuring reminder of how radically the planet has changed over and over again. The latter is as grim as it sounds, and is an impressively researched and comprehensive consideration of how and why Israel gave itself over to the notion that the ends justify any and all means.
Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?
Probably my father made the biggest impact on my reading life, by filling the house with books when I was young, even though neither he nor my mother read much. He was determined that I would be the first person in our family to go to college, and he figured that books were the way to get there. And since he thought that you read to learn, the books were entirely nonfiction, and my reading has been heavily tilted toward the nonfictional ever since.
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What’s next on ‘Bookish’
Sign up for the next free Bookish event coming August 19 with guests AJ Jacobs, Jerry Stahl and Laura Chinn joining host Sandra Tsing Loh.