My first literary magazines were comic books. This is a stretch, I know, since the adjective literary seems, at best, misapplied to most comic books and many of the ones I’m remembering in particular. Let it be said here and known forever more that Web of Spiderman (as opposed to The Amazing or Spectacular Spidermen, which had their moments) never contained anything within its pages that might be mistaken for literature, and despite the gender studies-larded dissertations that must have already been written about Archie comics, I’m not sure appending that adjective to the title of anything that ever contained Jughead is worth our while either. In fact, their very un-literary-ness is some of what made comic books seem so great back in those years when it was hard to realize I was enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird even though I had to read it for school. I followed the adventures of Scout and Boo Radley in good part because I wanted to do well on the predictable pop quiz. Comic books, by contrasts, were simply pleasurable and, in the truest sense, wondrous. Each flimsy page’s status within the canon (even before we know that word we understand one exists) wasn’t at issue; I read them to find out what happened next. And because I loved some of those images. Much of this territory has been well-trod by the Lethems and Chabons of the literary world as well as the Wares and Barrys of the grown-up comics world . I don’t mean to suggest I’ve discovered the appeal of comic books (especially for a certain sort of adolescent boy) and what that says about the identities we went on to form. In fact, a lot of that sort of analysis seems hollow or maybe simply about as relevant as the wallpaper. Sublimation of alienation, no matter the idiosyncratic trappings, isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. All I’m really noting, I guess, is that I learned to be eager for the next installment; to evaluate the month’s offering in comparison to others’ to cultivate a taste for certain artists and a disdain for others all of whom were creating right then; to understand that these various publications were talking to each other, and, better, talking to me, from comic books.
I got thinking about all this while trying to figure out why I don’t read literary magazines all that much these days. To be fair, except for a brief period after college, I’ve never been a particularly voracious reader of lit mags. Thing is: I don’t really read comics that much anymore either. That urge to keep up with a particular artistic vision has dissipated. Again, I assume I’m not all that exceptional in this respect. I visit TalkPointsMemo several times a day, and I hit my regular op-ed pages, Twins baseball scores, the Lords of Apathy. You maybe frequent a few blogs, a few facebook pages, a site or two that curates the best Youtube videos. And we know what this is all about because we are told all the time: the death of print, the ascendance of celebrity gossip; the shrinking of the American attention span. All of that seems pretty undeniable, but I’m not sure it really answers the question: why did we (and I mean I, of course) substitute thirst for a certain kind of brand-new information with a habit of perusing another? How can it be that I get from Obama inner circle gossip what I used to glean from new-to-the-world poems and stories, and before that, the drawings of Jim Lee that explaining the stories of Chris Claremont?
Surely I don’t. But I don’t miss my old comics, even if at times I miss the feeling of dying to know what the next one will be like. That’s not the same feeling as wanting to know what the Watchmen movie will be like (answer: about as proud and unreasonable as was the comic), since the end of a comic movie is nearly as opposite, in its finality, as the end of comic book can be. It’s also not quite the same as picking up a well bound lit mag and wondering if there’s anyone in there you didn’t realize would make you jealous, so piercing is her prose, so devastating are his lines – but it’s much closer. Maybe we should all try to cultivate that yearning a bit more than we do. I’m guiltier than others, I know, when it comes to letting impatience overrule the willingness to slog through to something great. I suspect, however, I don’t read literary magazines (or comic books) for the same reason most people don’t – because so much of them isn’t great, because so much of them is attempting something interesting, instead of, what?, creating it, justifying it, simply succeeding? We feel that we don’t have time to sift the imperfect gravel to get to the few jewels. And we’re right, since those few jewels don’t outweigh so much of that truly awful stuff. But the search for the jewels is wrong-headed, or rather, the focus on the jewels themselves is. Instead, I should probably be reading for the feeling of anticipation itself. Maybe this will turn into a great poem, have a great line, do something I didn’t know I wanted to see done. Maybe I’ll be glad I read this only when I get to the next issue.
This morning I spent a few hours trying out a new (to me) comic book series, The Walking Dead. It’s a version of the now traditional zombie narrative, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with bigger muscles, more characters, and more episodes. It is at times quite gripping, at others predictable or overblown. Rarely, if ever, is it all that profound. Being in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would suck, it says, and it would suck in different ways for different people, it adds, between hatchet blows to zombie skulls. It would – THWAK – force you to do things you never knew you would or could. I know that TWD will disappoint me since, in the first twelve installments, it has already begun to force the same characters to do many of the same things. But at the end of the last book they found a zombie prison, and I’m glad to say I can’t help but want to know what happens in there. And so I’m off to Barnes and Noble to pick up trade paperbacks #3 and #4, containing issues 12-18 and 19-23. Maybe while I’m there I’ll drop a few dollars on a literary magazine I’ve never seen before. Maybe I can wait a few more hours to hear more about the AIG bonuses. Maybe someone has written something for me, something I don’t yet know to miss.