Jeff Jensen’s life long love of comics
When I was 10 years old, the thing I wanted most wasn’t a dirt bike or a Boba Fett action figure or even one of those newfangled Atari 2600s. Nope: It was a copy of X-Men #108. The year was 1980. The Reagan revolution was sweeping the nation, American hostages were still in Iran, and I was a gawky fifth grader with a blazing mania for comics. And it was about to burn me badly.
At the time, nothing fired my imagination more than The Uncanny X-Men, the Marvel Comics series about persecuted mutant misfits. Issue #108 was legendary for being the first drawn by superstar John Byrne and for its cosmic story of how Phoenix and her freaky friends defeated an alien tyrant bent on unraveling the fabric of the universe. (Goose bumps, right?) While walking home from school one day in my quaint little corner of Seattle, I popped into a used bookstore to dig through their orphaned comics when my eyeballs went BOING! BOING! out of their sockets. There it was, X-Men #108, its crinkled cover so delicate to touch, its musty newsprint like rare perfume. I had to have it. Immediately. The price was $1, or 10 comics in trade. Problem: I had just blown my only buck on a Big Gulp. Bigger problem: I knew a quick, easy, and quite illegal way to make a trade.
For months, I had been brazenly robbing comics from a drugstore that happened to be right up the street. I always stole after school, since textbooks were critical accessories to my crime. The comics were kept on the lower shelf of a magazine rack just out of sight of the cashier. I would arrange my school stuff in two stacks on the cold tile floor, casually pull the targeted comic from the rack, and place it on top of one stack of books. Then, after perusing the other comics, I would gather the two stacks nonchalantly and walk out. It was genius. Thrillingly addictive. And necessary, too! Comic prices were soaring, at a rate my allowance couldn’t match. So here was my plan: Go to this drugstore, steal 10 comics, return to the bookstore, and make the exchange for X-Men #108. It was risky, for sure. I had never tried to boost more than one comic at a time before. In fact, as I commenced Operation: Swipe-and-Trade, something like Spidey sense — or maybe just my conscience — was warning me to abort the mission. But Phoenix called to me like a siren on the rocks. I zeroed in on Archie, Donald Duck, Conan — stuff the store probably couldn’t sell, anyway. Who read that crap? I scooped up my loot and quickly made for the door, and I was inches from a clean getaway when the manager stepped right in front of me.
Taking me by the shirt collar, the guy escorted me to the stockroom in the back. I insisted I wasn’t trying to steal anything. These 10 comics, suspiciously sandwiched between my textbooks — they just got there somehow! Instead of believing me, he called the cops. And after they showed up and laid it on thick (”So you go to a Lutheran school? Don’t they teach you right from wrong up there?”), they called my father. I literally begged them not to. My dad? He was a police officer too. A detective working in burglary and larceny, hunting thieves like me. He came to get me, and in the silence of the ride home, I knew I had humiliated him as much as I had myself.
The drugstore didn’t press charges, but my parents sure did. I was grounded for weeks, banned from buying comics for two years, and, worst of all, stripped of my entire collection. Comics and me should have been through. But we weren’t. In fact, as bleak as it seemed at the moment, our affair was only heating up.
To be clear, my parents bear some responsibility for the man I am today. ”We always had comics in the house,” my mother reports. ”Your dad read them. I used to read them too.” Mom was a Little Lulu girl who freely exposed her two sons to Lynda Carter in her skimpy Wonder Woman attire each week. Dad was a Batman guy. One of my earliest memories is of my father in his police uniform, teaching me to read with an issue of Justice League of America.
My first comics love was a certain friendly neighborhood wall crawler. Lots of fanboys make this claim; for some reason, kids are drawn to Spidey and his dweeby alter ego, Peter Parker. ”It’s because he’s just like us, a big old nerd,” says current Ultimate Spider-Man scribe Brian Michael Bendis. Another superstar comics writer, Brian K. Vaughan, sees Spider-Man as the ideal avatar for wish-fulfillment fantasy: ”He’s one of the few heroes whose mask hides his entire face, allowing us to imagine that it could be us behind those big white eyes.” To these theories, I add this: Spider-Man looks creepy. And when you’re a kid, creepy is cool, even when it totally creeps you out.
When I was 5, my parents took me to 7-Eleven for a special treat: a Slurpee in a collectible Spider-Man cup. As our car approached the store, what should my eyes behold but Spider-Man in the (cheaply costumed) flesh, striking the iconic three-fingered web-thwip pose and handing out Slurpee coupons. Neat. So neat that I refused to leave the car. Even when he bounded over to the window and tried to coax me out with a friendly wave, I stayed put in our blue Vega. I was simultaneously terrified and enthralled.
This convenience-store encounter of mine was actually part of a larger mid-’70s cultural moment for the wall crawler. There he was on The Electric Company, fighting Dracula and a Yeti while teaching life lessons and good grammar. There he was in the newspaper, starring in his new syndicated cartoon strip. There he was on CBS, in his own prime-time drama. And, of course, he headlined scads of comics, my favorite being an easy-to-read title for kids called Spidey Super Stories. Issue #16 was the most memorable reading experience of my childhood. It chronicled a spoofy meeting between Spider-Man and…a very Jaws-y shark. Seriously. Thanks to multimedia Spidey, my eyes were opening to the eclectic, electric, ain’t-it-cool world of pop culture itself.
Hooked on Spider-Man, I soon moved on to stronger stuff as I began to approach adolescence. Indeed, the late ’70s in comics were notable for epic yarn spinning (The Avengers #167, 168, 170 — 177: The Korvac Saga), memorable new characters (DC Comics Presents #26: the debut of the new Teen Titans!), and, of course, X-Men. I discovered this endearingly quirky ensemble of scrappy underdog heroes with #112 (in which the villainous Magneto kidnaps them and incarcerates them in his lair underneath a volcano in Antarctica), and their dark, romantic adventures moved my moody tweener soul. But nothing excited and accelerated my comics passion more than the prolific work of John Byrne, whose artistic style — naturalistic and nuanced, dynamic and detailed — was my definition of eye candy. In particular, I found myself very attracted to the way he drew Phoenix, a voluptuous, flame-haired bombshell prone to saying things like ”I am fire! And life incarnate!” That’s pretty hot when you’re 10. One night, I was at my desk, tracing Byrne’s curvy, bosomy Phoenix, when my father walked in. I suddenly felt compelled to hide the drawing under a book. He walked over, lifted up the book, and examined what I had tucked away. He gave an amused look, then put the picture back on my desk and walked away without saying a word, leaving me blushing brighter than the Human Torch.
By the time my post-shoplifting comic-book ban was lifted, I was 13 years old and my interests had changed. Steven Spielberg movies, Star Wars merchandise, and Hall & Oates albums now competed for my allowance. But I discovered that comics were changing too. With so many other entertainment options around, kids just weren’t buying them the way they used to. Comic-book racks began disappearing from neighborhood drugstores and groceries. To survive, publishers adopted a new business model, switching to a nonreturnable policy and selling comics almost exclusively through specialized retailers — hobby shops such as Golden Age Collectables, the comics mecca of my youth, hidden away on the lower level of Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Of course, by reducing the visibility of their product, they made it harder for publishers to attract new readers. Their solution? Keep current readers loyal longer by producing comics that were more mature, more sophisticated, more ”adult.”
The result was an ’80s creative revolution that changed the face of comics — and inevitably changed me. My new creative heroes were Alan Moore (Watchmen; Swamp Thing) and Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns; Daredevil), whose work brilliantly deconstructed the superhero mythology I had been weaned on. I was also dazzled by the mavericks of so-called independent comics — guys like Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!) and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (Love & Rockets), whose gritty, politically charged, and, yes, kinda naughty work suddenly found a wider audience thanks to die-hard kids like me seeking out new superheroes in comic-book shops. Comics were my rock & roll rebellion. They expressed my coming-of-age, as well as an emerging political sensibility that ran counter to the prevailing conservative climate. They were also once again inciting me to risky behavior. Even though I was in high school, my parents were nervous about me going downtown to Golden Age Collectables by myself — so I snuck down there by bus every weekend. Bored by freshman algebra, I spent the period reading comics with one of my few hardcore fanboy friends, Jason Lamb, although when I got a D+ on my midterms, I resolved to straighten up, lest my folks once again separate me from my beloved.
In my senior year, my English teacher offered me a deal: an exemption from the final exam if I agreed to use the studying time to apply for a full-ride scholarship to a college I had never heard of — the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Though better known for being a hatchery for illustrators, painters, and cartoonists, SVA had a journalism program at the time, and Ms. Norton sensed it would be a good place for a dreamy boy interested in writing and culture. The application asked for an essay: ”Trace how your interest in the arts has evolved over the course of your life.” I wrote what I knew. I wrote about how my Spidey-fixated youth had awakened me to (and wired me for) pop culture. About how an article in a comics fanzine examining the influence of Citizen Kane on the work of many comic-book artists inspired me to write a 50-page research paper on why Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time. It was an essay similar to this one. And I got the scholarship.
At SVA, I committed my last major act of malfeasance in the name of comics love. One of my best friends in college was a talented young cartoonist from Los Angeles named Phil Jimenez. He had just made some promising contacts at DC Comics when he was forced to drop out of school prior to his junior year for financial reasons. He needed to stay in New York to keep his comics dream alive, and fortunately, I was in a position to help him, as I happened to be an RA in the dorms. For the next year, I secretly boarded Phil in the suite I shared with two of his other friends. He drew his first professional comics on our kitchen table, and today, Phil is one of the field’s biggest stars. At the moment, he’s penciling — what else? — The Amazing Spider-Man.
A full accounting of my comic-book life should note that I’ve been lucky enough to write a few comics myself. Phil gave me the big break. In 1993, I co-wrote Team Titans with him for DC Comics. The experience was thrilling, frustrating, and illuminating: I learned it takes more than reading a lot of comic books to write good ones. Maybe I’ll try again in the future. In the meantime, my comics-saturated youth prepared me well for my current job as an entertainment journalist — especially these days, with Hollywood on a veritable superhero binge. X-Men. Spider-Man. Batman. Soon, there will even be a Watchmen movie. (I was on the set last month. I’m still pinching myself.) Famous storytellers such as Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man), and Damon Lindelof (Lost), who were deeply marked by comic-book pop, are finding intoxicating ways to reference the genre and are helping to cultivate a whole new generation of fans. The evidence? My son Ben, age 6, and my daughter Lauren, age 4. He loves Superman and sketching Spider-Man. She loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and watching Legion of Super Heroes cartoons. Every Wednesday, I take them comic-book shopping, and every Saturday morning, over breakfast, I regale them with origin stories of various superheroes. Their favorite? The one about the boy who got bit by the radioactive spider, of course. I must be doing it justice, because every time I tell them this story, they always say the same thing: ”Tell it again! Tell it again!” And I do.
As for the one about the evil boy genius whose burning love for the X-Men got him in trouble with the law, I’m waiting until they’re a little bit older.