I was browsing in the bookstore not long ago, thumbing through the various Kardashian bios that constitute our modern literary offerings, when two teenage girls came dashing around the aisle. They were adorable; rosy-cheeked, sporting sweatshirts and Converse, all wide-eyed and excited about life in a way that adults can only attain by prescription. The first girl stopped in amazement as she spotted the wall of identically-sized manga paperbacks. Her big, brown eyes flashing behind her glasses, her widening smile revealing her parents’ excellent dental plan, she squealed to her friend with girlish glee.
“Oh my GOD!! They have COMICS here!!!!”
Now, I’m not a bitter man. I look back on my forty-two years of self-indulgent misadventures with great fondness, depression permitting. I lead a soft, happy life of domestic splendor with a wonderful wife and no rug rats to disturb the peace. Fate has been kind to me. But in moments like this, I have to raise my voice to whatever cosmic forces dictate the innumerable injustices of our lives and ask, “Where? WHERE were these girls when I was fifteen?!?!”
At that age, I had long been a cartooning kid. This, in my view, is somewhat distinct from a comic book fanboy. The fanboy kid has an encyclopedic knowledge of Federation protocol and the contents of Batman’s utility belt. The cartooning kid can tell you what percentage of zip-a-tone is used on Mary Worth’s sofa. The fanboy kid knows how many times Kid Flash has fought the Clock King. The cartooning kid knows that those issues were inked with a Windsor #7 on vellum overlays, reduced at 68% when shooting the stats. From the moment I could hold a pencil, I drew cartoons of all kinds; comic books, comic strips, political cartoons, gag cartoons, etc. I did this at the expense of developing social skills via sports or debate teams or street gangs. In those days, such a nerdish obsession was considered worrying enough to bring shame on the family.
Because I had no other redeeming qualities, like charm or conversation skills, trying to impress girls meant showing them my comics. I didn’t bother trying to woo them with renderings of ponies or unicorns or anything a girl might actually like, I gave them copies of my 17-volume sci-fi comedy series (it was a cross between Star Wars and Garfield – freakin’ hilarious!). Despite the obvious genius on display in these pages, girls were never impressed, or even the slightest bit interested. And I’m convinced this is because girls who like comics had not been invented yet.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. In my travels through the fandom circles of the 1980s, I encountered maybe four adult women who were interested in comics. They were all into Elfquest, the only American comic book of that period that seemed to attract a female readership, and they were all, without exception, batshit crazy. Like “don’t leave her alone with the children” crazy. Like “Lizzy Borden with a subscription to Heavy Metal” crazy. To be fair, it took a high level of geek intensity back then for a woman to forego the traditional female preoccupations and embrace comic books. It was simply not socially acceptable. The point being that only girls who were already hopelessly maladjusted made their interest in comic books public knowledge.
But I didn’t know any girls my own age into comics, batshit or otherwise. And frankly, I didn’t really believe such creatures existed. I didn’t know much about females, but I knew they didn’t collect back issues of Power Man and Iron Fist. Girls liked rock music, mystery novels and booze. Hoping to find a girlfriend into Cerebus was like wishing your dad was C3PO - not much point in fantasizing about imaginary beings. Meanwhile, there were real, live girls at my school, newly developed and intoxicatingly aromatic, and they didn’t give a damn about me or my stupid comics. Yet I persisted in blathering on about Swamp Thing instead of telling them their hair looked nice. I just couldn’t seem to give up on that notion that true romance would mean cuddling together in our Teen Titans sleeping bags and sharing our favorite quotes from Ambush Bug. But it was not to be.
Today, as with everything else in this bloated culture, the modern comic book fan has his geek girlfriends just handed to him. It seems the comics publishers eventually hit on the formula to attract angst-ridden teenage girls to their dork realm: goth, goth and more goth. Not only did the comic book characters start sporting eyeliner, leather and jet black hair, so did the fans. Suddenly, the comics shops were filled with cute hipster chicks in Doc Martens, loudly debating the fighting techniques of popular androids and quoting Monty Python with the best of them. This is par for the course, naturally, since the super heroes, wizards and 24-sided die that were once the exclusive domain of lonely nerd boys are now the chief ingredients of mainstream culture. Everybody’s a fanboy now, lining up for Hollywood blockbusters about Thor and Green Lantern between trips to the action figure aisle. Only now the wives and girlfriends they brought along are no longer rolling their eyes at the childishness of it all, regretting they broke up with the star quarterback. Now the gals are just as excited about seeing Bruce Banner turn into the Hulk as their stunted boyfriends. This is not the world I grew up in.
I’m not a bitter man, remember, but I’ve learned to hate comics over the years. The more depressing elements of comics culture – the super hero junkies, fantasy-obsessed dorks dressing up like steampunk Hobbits and so forth – have become ubiquitous in direct proportion to my loathing. Where I once patiently tolerated the tasteless and lowbrow among comics aficionados, now I would prefer that they were all marched single-file into an active volcano. So these days, after I get past my initial resentment over the proliferation of cute comics girls, I realize I’m actually really disappointed in them. I realize that the women I find attractive today are like the ones I was forced to pursue as a teenager; mature, dignified women with important issues to attend to and no time for my stupid bullshit. Since the dream geek didn’t magically appear, I had to compromise. I had to accept that the female head was filled with any number of interesting things that weren’t related to Stan Lee at all, and that there was potential benefit to shutting up about Secret Wars long enough to hear about them. As a result, I got to know a woman who was far more intelligent and sophisticated than myself, who barely tolerated my interest in Spider-Man, and eventually married her. She has no time for my stupid bullshit to this day, and I find that eternally irresistible.
I learned to hold women up to a higher standard, above the infantile cartoon diversions that I had once mistaken for ideology. The women I grew to respect condemned the cartoon power fantasies of hopeless fanboys. Seeing these geek girls today, excitedly chatting with cartoon voices about their cosplay and fanfic – girls I would’ve considered gifts from Odin in my cartooning youth – they can be pretty irritating, frankly. I’d come to expect more dignity from females, but these younger girls have reduced themselves to the level of…well, me. I’m reminded of Shannon Faulkner, who fought in the courts and won her right to enroll in the Citadel Military College in the ‘90s. On the one hand, you wanted her to break the bonds of discrimination and destroy generations of outmoded sexism. On the other hand, you wondered why in the hell she wanted to attend Asshole School with a bunch of pretend soldiers rather than doing something constructive like, say, burning the Citadel to the ground.
Now, even though comic book stores are filled with highly flammable material, and even though my father is a former fire inspector and I can tell you sure-fire ways to commit arson undetected, I would never suggest that girls should burn them to the ground. Nor would I suggest that a woman’s hard-earned freedom to indulge in Naruto and X-Factor free from scorn should be squelched. After all, my boyhood awe of females remains intact and I believe they should do whatever they want, up to and including burning comic book stores to the ground, should they choose to do so.
I’m merely saying, geek girls, you just weren’t there when I needed you, and I had to move on. It could’ve been wonderful. We could’ve held hands at the Adam West signing and groped in our Aquaman underoos, but you simply weren’t there. The passions for the funnybook arts we could have shared have faded for me now. And though I am not a bitter man, reminders of my youthful pastimes now leave me feeling pained and dejected. But searching outside my comfort zone led me to a richer world, full of knowledge beyond the capacity of the Batcomputer and life experience more exciting than that Sub-Mariner/Avengers crossover when Dr. Faustus cloned the Inhumans.
I could tell you a few things about sprinkler systems, for example.