I get the best seat on the sofa, a bowl of salty snacks, and dive in the world of super powers and cliff hangers with a stack of comic books. I explore the different eras of comic books, talk about discovering graphic novels, and how digital comic books changed everything.
Comic Book Eras
I’d like to claim comic books as 90s kid thing but they’ve been a thing for over a hundred years with generations of kids and adults claiming them. It feels that every decade there is a comic book resurgence. With the onslaught of comic book movies and shows, it feels as if we’re going through one right now.
Are we really though? I think what’s happening is just a new generation of comic book lovers is coming up.
Comic books started in 1842 in the US with the release of The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck. There were obviously the comic strips in newspapers where the speech bubble was established. As comic strips became popular, so did their artists and authors as newspapers competed for them.
In 1934, the first true, independent-of-newspapers comic book was published. This kicked off what’s known as the “Golden Age of Comic Books” from 1938 to 1955. Comic Books of this era could be characterized by superhero and funny animal themes. Other genres started to develop, like westerns, sci-fi, romance, and horror.
After the decline of the 1950s and like most media, they started to be condemned for their effects on children, namely the horror and crime genres. The Comics Code Authority was created to protect young minds.
The “Silver Age” started in in 1956 and lasted til 1976 with the resurgence of superheroes. Non-superhero comics died out and publishers closed leaving Marvel and DC the majority of readers.
Marvel grew to the being the dominant publisher in the “Bronze Age” of comics from 1973-1985 with the introduction of new and exciting characters. It is during this era of comic books that independent and underground comic books surfaced with new distribution models and aesthetics. It’s also known as the “Dark Age of Comics” with a new, grungy take on superhero.
Then came the “Modern Age” of 1986 to 2015, which resembled the “Golden Age” with a boon of new characters, art styles, and adult topics. Readership also resembled the levels seen during the “Golden Age”.
Discovering Comic Books
Comic books were a part of pop-culture when I was growing up. Couple that with the activity of hanging out and browsing shops, which has pretty much gone away with Blockbuster, reading and collecting comic books was a big part of my entertainment.
My parents had a pizza restaurant and there was a dingy comic books shop next to it. Actually, all comic book shops were probably dingy back then. Anyways, I remember browsing the $1 comic bins looking for that special comic. What made a comic special? Obviously it had to be the first issue of a comic book. I could be sitting on a gold mine!
The idea that collecting something could lead to a fortune was pretty common. We did it with hockey cards and lots of kids did it with Beanie babies. None of us got rich.
Back to comic books.
I kept those non-name first edition comic books in their seal and waited. I don’t know what I was waiting for since there was no way of knowing if they were worth anything. I put them up on my wall as a reminder of my investment.
When I wanted to actually read comic books, I’d go to the library and took out 20 books at a time. I remember each comic book felt like a dozen actual pages of story and another dozen pages of ads. I tried to savour every page and stretch out the few minutes it took to read an issue into 15-20 minutes.
I read mostly X-Men and Spider-Man since they were both on TV and I was familiar with them. I did branch out sometimes based on the covers but didn’t add anything to my regulars.
Eventually video games came along and comic books went away. I still liked the characters and would occasionally read a Spider-Man book here and there but didn’t go back to the library.
Fast forward 10, 15 years when I had some disposable income and a bookshelf to fill in my first house. I was and still am an avid reader so would regularly buy 3 or 4 books at at time, so when I was at the bookstore and saw comic books that were hard cover and did not look like they were made for kids, I got curious.
I learned that there was a new genre of comic book called “graphic novels”, which were thick and didn’t have the same childish designs or topics. The first graphic novel I bought was called “From Hell”, a violent, chaotic, and famous graphic novel about Jack the Ripper.
It didn’t feel like I was doing something childish, I was reading an adult story just with pictures. A whole new world of entertainment was now available to me and there were so many books to read.
Thanks to Google, I got a list of acclaimed graphic novels and got to reading. I read Watchmen, a story about super-hero life with real life consequences and ideas that came from the “Dark Age” of the 80s. I read The Walking Dead, another horror comic book, that obviously eventually became part of pop culture with its TV show. I read Maus, maybe the most influential graphic novel of the era, about Polish Jews and the Holocaust told as mice.
Once I got over the quasi-embarrassment of reading comic books and discovered there were a lot of 20, 30, 40, 50-somethings reading “graphic novels”, I looked into characters I liked growing up. What if those stories grew up too?
Ever since seeing Jack Nicholson fall into a vat of acid and turn into the Joker, Batman has been my favourite comic book character. I must have seen it when I was 5 or 6 and I remember asking my mom how the Joker had a permanent smile on his face.
The 90s were all Batman – there were all the movies and different Batmans. I can’t say the quality got better but as a kid even the terrible Batman movies had enough in them for me to enjoy.
There was the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series. It was dark, gothic, and scared me as much as it entertained me. Then came Batman Beyond at the end of 90s which was about an old Bruce Wayne taking a young kid under his wing as the new Batman.
The only thing missing was really a good Batman video game. That came much later in 2013.
Before the great video game came the Batman graphic novels. As I went down the rabbit hole of adult graphic novels, I googled Batman and found an endless list of comic books.
I won’t go into them all but with all the Batman character, supporting characters, and story lines, there’s no shortage of fantastic books:
- How did the Joker become the Joker?
- What did Batman’s first year on the job look like?
- If Batman and Superman got into a fight, who would win? This seems obvious but Batman is pretty clever, remember?
- Did Batman actually help Gotham or lead to the creation of super-criminals?
Digital Comic Books
Besides the fantastic and always growing catalogue of comic books, one more thing led to comic books being a regular part of my entertainment escapes: digital comic books.
Like music and movies, once comic books were digitized and I could access basically any and all books from my computer, I was able to read 10x as many books as before. I’d download dozens of books on my laptop and read them till the battery died.
It wasn’t as intimate because I’d have to sit at a desk and use a mouse or keyboard with the screen 2-3 feet away. That changed with the iPhone.
I had already been reading books on my phone since my first black and white Blackberry. I loved having a library in my pocket and the ability to ready at any time. As smartphones became more common, I started to watch movies on their tiny, 2 to 3 inch screens on the bus.
When the iPhone came along with its bigger screen and apps. I enjoyed reading up to 3 paragraphs at a time compared to the 1 on my Blackberry. When the first comic book reader app came along, called Zeal – I still remember, I couldn’t believe it! I was so close to reading comic books as if they were in print.
On the original, tiny iPhone screen, I’d have to read them in landscape mode and pan panel-by panel, zooming in and out. It was definitely more intimate than a laptop but obviously, it wasn’t ideal.
The iPad was the the only Apple product I bought day one and this is the main reason: I could finally read comic books on a screen that was almost as big as an 8.5 x 11 paper. I could hold with one hand lying down on the couch. I could read in the dark with its backlighting.
Today, I still read on my iPad with it’s better, sharper screen, and it checks all the boxes.
You may have picked up a theme across some of my hobbies where I try to justify the time I spend doing them either through physical or mental growth. I tend to feel guilty when I spend what little free time I have being entertained.
When I don’t have the energy to exercise, I choose to read a book rather than watch TV so at least I can say I’m exercising my brain. It’s debatable if reading is substantially better than watching TV but that’s another issue.
Comic books fall into that sweet spot of entertainment with the beautiful art and superhero comic books and the adult genres to fulfill the mental exercise portion of my anxiety.
It’s also one of the few hobbies I’ve kept for decades. I think it’s because the catalogue is so varied that as I age and as my tastes change, there are topics and books that keep up.
Also, they are obviously really entertaining and a valid form of story telling with mainstream media poaching stories and making billions from a handful of characters.
So I’m happy to end this episode unlike the majority of past episodes by saying this is one of my favourite hobbies and one I can see enjoying for the rest of my life.