Let Me School You Cats On How To Read Comic Books When You Live In A Small Town And You're Poor
While the Marvel and DC film studios flood cinemas worldwide with their superhero adaptations one comics fan recalls a past in which comic books and graphic novels were both expensive and inaccessible to a whole generation of readers and were frowned upon as being relevant reading material by the literature orthodoxy.
When you are 12 years old in Windhoek, Namibia, in that faraway year of 2000, this is what you do when you want to read comic books.
First you wake up early to go shopping with your parents on a Saturday morning. Your father will drop your mother in town so she can buy the groceries for the family while he goes to the bank to do, well, whatever it is fathers do in their mysterious universes. Your mother's world, though, is quite familiar. Following carefully highlighted flyers advertising discounted items she will begin her shopping trip at the Shoprite in Independence Avenue and then work her way to the Gustav Voigts Centre and its OK Bazaars. When you hear she needs to go to the OK Bazaars you tell your younger brother - the one with the same fantasy, science fiction, and superhero addiction - that today will be a good day. This is not because you are going to be helpful or dutiful sons, helping her pick up the items she needs to keep your family well fed and contentedly middle class. Nor is it because the OK Bazaars is some hidden teenage Mecca of fun and distraction. You hate the place, personally. No, the reason you are both excited about going to the Gustav Voigts Centre is because of the shop across from the OK Bazaars on the bottom floor: the local CNA.
In the back of the shop, in the short arm of the L-shaped room, is the toy section. It is filled with all the figurines, LEGO sets, and board games that are never part of the family budget. The wide, two man aisles in the long body of the room have shelves stocked with stationery on special to the right as you enter. Somehow, the prices still hover above your income bracket. You and your kin get your school supplies from PEP. In the middle aisle are the books, new and expensive, paperbacks and hardcovers. To the right is the magazine aisle with its glut of glossy reading material catering for all kinds of tastes: football, fishing, fashion, fitness, photography; business, politics, cooking, and decor; motor cars and motorbikes; smut and scholarly journals. Nestled between the craft and design magazines are the objects of your insatiate curiosity: comic books.
These illustrated stories are the reason why you and your brother egg your mother to shop quickly at Shoprite; why you stride through town imperiously, scarcely yielding the right of way to adults. You tell her to hurry up. When you arrive at the Gustav Voigts Centre your mother will want to peruse some of the shops there for boring, motherly things. She will tire of your presence and say, "Fine. I will find you at CNA."
The first part of the plan is a success.
Now for the second part. Teamwork will make this dream work.
Usually, you and your siblings go to the public library on Saturdays. Since you moved to Windhoek from Nairobi it has been a kind of day-care centre. Your parents do not mind leaving you there in the afternoons in the week so you can do your homework or read, and on most weekends it is where they leave you while they run around attending to the family's needs. The librarians know the four of you - you, your older sister, and your younger brothers - and the unusual accompanying reading appetites. They keep popular books aside for you, removing them from circulation, hiding them behind the counter until one of you comes to take them out. That is how VIP you are at the library - but today is not an Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Hergé, or Goscinny and Uderzo kind of day. Today is set aside for Marvel, DC, and Image - the hallowed trinity of the comic-book world at the time.
In the week it is impossible to read comic books at CNA because there are two guards on duty, sometimes three. They stalk through the aisles, making sure nothing is stolen, that none of the toys are opened, and they swoop down on readers in the magazine aisle to prevent reading before purchase. They are just doing their job, really, but as far as you are concerned they are agents of deprivation. "No reading without buying" will become the most villainous line you will hear for a long time.
Even at that young age you know the caveat only applies to black people like you. When white parents walk into the store with their children the guards allow the progeny of the privileged to flick through magazines, books, and comics without hindrance. Tantrum-mad children tear open toy packets; the staff repackage them without any admonishment. You know never to pull such stunts as a black child. The guards will manhandle you and toss you out by your ear. If your mother ever finds out you she will be ashamed forever. You should know better. You do know better: weekdays are the worst time to try to read comics; weekends are better.
On Saturdays, the store reduces its staff capacity.
On a day like today there will only be one guard on duty.
This is why you brought your brother along. From the moment you enter the shop, the guard will profile you: two black boys equals shoplifting. This is basic store-security maths. He will follow you. The two of you are prepared for this. You split up. Your brother will go to the toy section and you will loiter in front of the magazines. Now the guard has a choice to make. Either he watches you to prevent you from reading one of the publications on the shelves or he keeps an eye on your brother to make sure the Hot Wheels and Micro Machines inventories are not reduced by one. You can almost hear the clogs of prejudice spinning in his head as the two of you present him with this Frostian conundrum.
Two boys diverged in a shop.
He looks at you and decides you are definitely not a reader. He heads off to the toy section.
Homeboy does not know when you are motivated, when you have time, when a story has you in its grips, you can cover a book in a day or two. The poor guy does not know your reading age at 10 was 13 going on 16. You are 12 now, which means the mint-condition comic books in front of you are about to become - pause for effect
- flash fiction.
(Thank you. Thank you very much!)
As soon as his boot vanishes around the corner of the aisle you are on them.
Because this is Windhoek, a place where readers are the riskiest of bottom lines, CNA sees no merit in keeping things on its shelves that will not sell. As such, all the comics on the shelves are just the hits, nothing niche, and it only orders titles and issues when they are available. The supply chain ensures none of the issues on the shelves ever follow each other sequentially. It is impossible to complete a story arc, impossible to know if Doc Oc's experiment finally works in that one Spider-Man issue. Does Spawn become reunited with his family? Wait, how did the Hulk wind up in space? So many unknowns, so little time.
Some of the issues are back orders, too, from 1995, 1996, 1997. The most the staff members have done is arrange the comic books in alphabetical order - but they have rigged the game most cruelly. The unreachable top shelf is where they have placed the really cool stuff. The Avengers
, Fantastic Four
, Silver Surfer
and the Wolverine
series, Wonder Woman
with their provocative covers. The middle aisle is where they put the fare for the common man: Alley Cat
, Green Arrow
, The Punisher
- that kind of thing. There is an adage about beggars and choosers. Whatever can be read needs to be read at speed. You grab a cover that seems promising.
Today it is Green Lantern Vol 3 #104: Emerald Knights, Part 4: Greener Pastures Conclusion
. Wherever the first part of the "Greener Pastures" storyline is, it certainly is not where the second one is: right in front of your hungry, roving eyes, that are scanning the illustrations with swift greed. You have to read, and read quickly before -
"No reading without paying!"
The guard walks towards you, plastic baton flicking in his hand. You put the comic book back on the shelf and say, "Yes, sir." You walk out of the aisle to your brother in the toy section trying to look, for all intents and purposes, like a shifty thief. The guard follows you. (Of course!) The two of you walk around the section for a bit and pick up a few figurines, talk about them, and then put them back. Then your brother wanders back to the magazine section.
The guard freezes, the face doing the maths again: this one in the toy section is clearly the older brother. How fast, realistically, can the younger brother read?
O! Fucking fast.
Especially when it is comic books or science fiction.
You keep the guard occupied for 10 or 15 minutes until your brother comes to tag you out. He has just finished reading Thor Vol 2 #12: The Dark Wars, Part III
. You return to finish Green Lantern
Sometimes, the guard on duty is the spritely one, the one who moves from aisle to aisle on silent feet, somehow covering the entire length of the shop before you can make headway in a story. You have a contingency for this, too. You read page one to 10. Your brother will read 11, 12, and 13. Then you will read the home stretch. Later, at home, you will piece the story together, sometimes with dramatic re-enactments. (You really cannot beat poverty when it comes to creativity!)
By the time you reach the last page of your comic the guard has become properly agitated. If you stay in the shop any longer he will call the manager who will ask you to leave since you are not buying anything. "Stop causing trouble" is the favourite reason for exclusion. There is a white guy who has been hovering around the adult magazines. When your brother had the guard shadowing him in the toy section, the guy tore a Loslyf
out of its translucent plastic cover. You could see the sweat on his small mouth as he turned the pages, barely noticing anyone around him. This guy will harrumph in frustration when the guard coughs loudly and pointedly in his general direction when he comes to stop you reading again. The guy will put the magazine back on the shelf sans cover, tits out for the whole world to see, and walk out of the shop without buying anything
but is you who might incur the manager's wrath.
"No reading without buying!" the guard says.
"Yes, sir," you reply. You put the comic book back.
has always been a pretty tepid comic, in your opinion; it never really hit the mark for you - but, hey, it was the closest at hand and when you and your brother are busy being double the trouble and twice the fun you commit to what is closest at hand. Maybe next time there will be time to read something more interesting. Maybe next month you will be tall enough to reach the top-tier stuff.
Your mother walks into CNA. It is time to go to OK Bazaars. There are only a few items left to tick off on her grocery list before your father comes to fetch you.
The mission has been accomplished.
In 2001, after finally seeing The Matrix
on a friend's VHS tape, this is how you read comic books when you live in a small town.
You do not.
They all come in protective cellophane now. All of them, even the bottom-tier stuff from the Eighties no one ever buys. The cellophane is an offensive force field. It takes too long to open. It makes a noise. Worse, if you tear the cellophane, you have to buy it.
You did it once.
Your mother was called to the shop.
"Goei middag, mevrou. Kan jy asseblief
- in English? Okay. Could you please come to CNA in Independence Avenue? We have your son here."
She had to fork out N$50 (around US$5 back then) to buy that Silver Surfer
comic "and to pay a fine for the transgression". (Congratulations, you were finally tall enough to reach the top shelf!) Her lips were as straight and as taught as the switch she used to put to your buttocks when you were younger but now you are too old for that. Instead, she has found a better way of keeping you in line: sighing her disappointment. She winces when the cashier takes her money. The taxi ride home is a hearse for broken trust. In the house she walks to her bedroom with the comic book. You never see it again.
You do not read another comic book that year because high school starts kicking your ass and there is an unspoken agreement with your mother that you are never to enter that
shop ever again.
The shame is much too high.
The year after that, CNA decides comic books are a losing enterprise.
It discontinues them.
It is 2007 and you are 19. This is how you read comic books.
You open your web browser and scroll to your favourite bookmark. It takes a while to find a link or mirror that works but when you do the PDF starts downloading. Sometimes it is quick, sometimes it takes ages.
Anime and manga are also a part of your life now. Akira
, Princess Mononoke
, Ghost In The Shell
, Death Note
, and many other titles vie for your attention. As long as there are epic showdown battles you are down for the ride. The Japanese stuff is hectic, though; the storylines are rich and dark, the themes are far beyond anything Bob Kane and Steve Ditko could dream up. There is a student society dedicated to anime. You do not join because you do not have the time. You are in university, in Cape Town, in the Faculty Of Engineering & The Built Environment. Technical drawing and statistics are chowing you. Construction timetables cannot be the rest of your life.
Next year you will make the jump to the humanities.
By 2009, you have stopped dropping references to comic books in your literature essays. The tutors never seem to get them. They highlight them with angry red pens.
This is obscure. This makes no sense. This is an academic essay.
They want saline prose on Victorian writing. The African literature section is marginally more interesting. At least they understand oral traditions. You manage to make a reference to Wakanda in one submission, which does not completely devalue your grade. You want to pass this course. You need
to pass the course. You need a particular grade to secure admission to law school. You do what you know you have to do.
A comment you remember from one of your tutors, the one you are certain hated you because you called him a "poor man's Robin, the sidekick of a sidekick" within earshot: "While comic books provide pleasant and distracting reading for young readers, Shakespeare demands a certain maturity. The central Macbethian struggles have little to do with the Captain America and Iron Man fallout."
This is how the world ends.
Not with a bankai
but with snide comments from highbrow hipsters.
It is 2013.
You are in law school.
This is a man's world and when you become a man it is time to put childish things away.
There is a popular comic book shop in Cape Town you avoid because that place will make you spend your allowance there in one fell swipe.
Also, law essays have no space for comic-book trivia. At least you can have fun in the footnotes, though. Terry Pratchett taught you that much.
By the time you graduate in December it will have been a while since you last read a comic book.
"Of what import are brief, nameless lives...to Galactus?"
That is from the first page of Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao
It is 2014 and you have moved back home. You picked up this book your sister bought for your younger brother - the nerd one - because it is about a boy who is obsessed with comic books and fantasy fiction. It was lying on the lounge's coffee table and you picked it up because books have that effect on you. You just have to touch them.
That opening line is unreal.
What the fuck is this?
You flip back to the cover.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
This Dominican-American cat wrote multi-generational stories about Trujillo's dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, race and class among Latin Americans, the messiness of romantic and familial relationships, sexual assault, depression and suicide, and the aching void of loss and he opened it with a comic-book reference?
What was that word the tutors liked so much?
Yes! That is it. Díaz wrote a layered story but the bedrock of the whole thing is comic book and nerd lore.
And they gave him a Pulitzer Prize for it.
In all your faces all you so-called Postmodernist Jammie-sitting philosophers at the University Of Cape Town.
I accept this award on behalf of all the people who always knew this shit was cool from the start.
You hope Díaz said that at the award ceremony.
2018 finds you turning 30.
You teach high school English the way you wish you were taught back then, with hip-hop name dropping and references to Neil Gaiman's Sandman
series. Because you hold a grudge like a motherfucker one of the essay topics you set for the tenth-grade students asks them to find common Macbethian themes in Ryan Coogler's film Black Panther
You tell your students for their book review they can read any of the graphic novels at Uncle Spike's Book Exchange, a secondhand bookshop in Windhoek that sometimes has Frank Miller comics stashed in the stacks.
One of the boys asks what a graphic novel is.
Your stare at him for a while.
Then you realise this is a different generation. Everything exists on their iPads and what is not on their iPads is in the movies. Hollywood is raiding everything you had to read when you were younger for a storyline. There is no urgency to read; sooner or later, they figure, everything will be at the cinema.
You tell the kid what a graphic novel is.
The class's eyes flare open.
"We can really read that for class?"
"Of course. That shit's cool."
(You need to make a concerted effort to bleep certain words when the fire is upon you.)
"Did you read them for class when you were at school?"
"No. That kind of sh- stuff was not serious enough apparently. Plus, they were ka
- quite expensive."
"So how did you get them?"
"My brother and I had a plan." You move another kid's books aside and put one butt cheek on his desk. "Let me school you cats on how to read comic books when you live in a small town and you're poor."
, Speculative Fiction