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First Love: A Personal History With the American Comic Book

Posted on August 27, 2014 at 6:00 am

By T. Andrew Wahl
Guest Writer
Andrew Wahl's First Love: A Personal History With the American Comic Book | Spokane County Library District

The Golden Age of comics got underway in 1938 with DC’s publication of Action Comics #1. During this period, DC also introduced Batman and Wonder Woman, two of comic-book historian T. Andrew Wahl’s favorite characters.

There is a question I am often asked: Why do you love comic books?

My answer: Comics are a gateway.

Not to other universes filled with super-humans locked in near-mythological battles. Or epic adventures in alien cultures and faraway lands. Or anthropomorphic worlds filled with funny—and not-so-funny—animals. Though, of course, comics take me to all these places, too.

But there is a more essential gateway that comic books open: a gateway through time. No, not literal time travel (itself a topic of many a comic-book story). Instead, it’s a journey of nostalgia that allows Grown-Up Me to transverse the years and reconnect with 10-Year-Old Me.

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Andrew Wahl's First Love: A Personal History With the American Comic Book | Spokane County Library District

During the Atomic Age of comics (roughly 1946 to 1956), EC was one of the top publishers with its graphic tales of horror, crime, sci-fi and war. Wahl’s favorite story from this period is “Corpse on the Imjin,” a short tale first published in Two-Fisted Tales #25.

If comics are a gateway, then X-Men #129 was my gateway drug. It was early in 1980 and I’d just returned home from Tom Thumbs Grocery, a little mom-and-pop neighborhood store in Lake Stevens, Washington. As usual, I’d spent my weekly allowance restocking the essentials of my 10-year-old life: Coca-Cola, Nacho Corn Nuts and comic books.

I’d been an avid comics reader since before I could actually read. Prowling swap meets and garage sales with my family, I’d amassed several large stacks of the four-color treasures. And, whenever a parent would make a grocery run, I’d often tag along to pick up new additions.

This trip was no different. Or so I thought at the time. I’d never read the X-Men before and I’m still not sure why this particular issue stood out on the “Hey!! Kids Comics” spinner rack. I probably just wanted to try something new. And, boy, was this ever new.

Andrew Wahl's First Love: A Personal History With the American Comic Book | Spokane County Library District

Wahl has a particular fondness for the comics of his youth, a period now known as the Bronze Age (roughly 1970 to 1985). X-Men by Chris Claremont and John Byrne was instrumental in making him a lifelong comic-book fan. (Fun fact: Wahl’s youngest daughter is named after the mutant Kitty Pryde, a mutant super-heroine introduced in X-Men #129.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but X-Men #129 was the first issue of “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” heralded today as one of the greatest superhero story arcs of all time. The script, by Chris Claremont, was enthralling. The art, by the legendary art team of John Byrne and Terry Austin, was detailed and sleek. This issue also introduced a brand-new character: a plucky, 13-year-old mutant named Kitty Pryde, who proved to be my perfect point-of-view character (as well as my first comic-book crush). I couldn’t wait to read more.

My love affair with the X-Men—and comic books as a medium—grew quickly. I could no longer wait for the random grocery runs, and began peddling my bike to Tom Thumbs. By summer, I’d be at the store every Tuesday morning when the magazine distributor arrived, volunteering to help him unload the truck in order to get first dibs on the latest comics.

As “The Dark Phoenix Saga” raced to its conclusion in X-Men #137, I could no longer wait to get home before devouring the latest issue. With my dog Whiskers by my side and Coke and corn nuts in hand, I’d hide behind Tom Thumbs, sitting on milk crates, lost in the Marvel Universe. I didn’t have a care in the world. At least not this one.

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Andrew Wahl's First Love: A Personal History With the American Comic Book | Spokane County Library District

Marvel rose to prominence during the Silver Age of comics, a period lasting from 1956 to 1970. Fantastic Four #1, published in 1961, was the first of many iconic super-hero franchises Marvel launched around this time.

It’s never been quite as bad—or as magical—as it was during the summer of 1980. But comic books have been one of the great constants in my life since.

As I grew into a teen and my tastes evolved, cutting-edge creators like Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) started offering increasingly sophisticated, more-literary fare. In college and graduate school, comic books provided a rich pop-culture lens through which to focus my academic studies in history. As I became a young father, I shared my love of the medium with my two daughters, with all-ages comics like Bone and Teen Titans Go!

More recently, as mainstream superhero comics grew increasingly commodified (they’re intellectual properties now, not characters), I found my fix in thick collections reprinting the stories of my youth (now referred to by comic-book historians as the Bronze Age, a period covering roughly 1970 to 1985). I also discovered many delightful creator-owned titles thanks to an increasingly varied comics marketplace: Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga are two recent additions to my all-time favorites list.

Comics have also provided an opportunity to travel. I recently joined the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau and have been visiting libraries across the state to deliver Sequential Reaction: A History of the American Comic Book. For all but the very oldest Americans, comics tend to have played some role in our formative years. They spark memories and conversation. The rich, intergenerational discussions I’ve experienced during my journeys have been a testament to the lasting power of my favorite medium.

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Andrew Wahl's First Love: A Personal History With the American Comic Book | Spokane County Library District

Wahl’s current favorite is Saga, a sweeping sci-fi story by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. He gives it his highest recommendation.

The power of comics is multifaceted: Engaging stories and amazing art—and the utterly unique magic that comes from the juxtaposition of the two. It’s the interplay of panels; larger-than-life characters; a visual language including word balloons, speed lines, and other effects.

I love all of that. I do.

But my passion for the medium stems from another of its many powers. A simpler one: nostalgia. Regardless of where I am in life, if I pick up a comic book, Little Me is there. Grown-up worries are put on hold, replaced by wonder and joy. Comics offer me both release and reaffirmation. And a gateway to a happy place.

I’ve long believed the world would be a better place if everyone had a way to reconnect with his or her childhood self. Not everyone can get there, let alone by the same means. For my father, model trains provide his gateway. For my sister, it’s children’s books. One of my friends plays soccer. Another sings.

For me, the answer is comic books. And I love ’em.


Comic-Book Best Bets: Recommended Reading From the Spokane County Library Collection

When I was growing up, most libraries offered very little in the way of comic books. Today, fans new and old can enjoy vast collections of comic-book goodness – from virtually every era of the medium’s history. Here’s a handful of my personal favorites, all available from the Spokane County Library District. – TAW


Post_ComicHistory_bioT. Andrew Wahl is a longtime journalist in the Pacific Northwest, having worked as an editor and editorial cartoonist at newspapers on both sides of the Cascades. He is also a comic-book historian serving as a member of the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau.

Join him for a presentation of: Sequential Reaction: A History of the American Comic Book, at a library near you, in participation with Humanities Washington.

CHENEY
Wednesday, Sep 10, 2–3:30pm

ARGONNE
Wednesday, Sep 10, 6:30–8pm

NORTH SPOKANE
Thursday, Sep 11, 7–8:30pm

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