On Comics and Life

I read the comics every day and have done so for as long as I can remember.  One of the things I really miss from my days in the classroom is having a bulletin board on which to proudly display my favorites strips for all to see.  Every handout, quiz, and test was always adorned with some relevant comic, which I obsessively cut out, collected, and categorized for just this purpose.

In addition to daily and Sunday strips, I’ve also collected comic books on-and-off since I was a teenager.  Comics have been and endless source of shared enjoyment with family and students, and they’ve also served as an uncannily reflective lens through which I’ve experienced life myself.

The oldest books in my collection are classic Peanuts paperbacks, icons of my early childhood years (late 50s through the 60s).  These were the golden years of Peanuts influence in popular culture, a time when Charles Schulz’s memorable characters enjoyed a virtual monopoly of public appeal with their simple, honest humor.  Laughs and lessons from a child’s perspective were often laced with timeless wisdom beyond their age, served up for all ages to enjoy.

As a kid, I was basically a social Charlie Brown and a philosophical Linus who desperately tried to be a “Joe Cool” Snoopy.  My childhood holidays were synonymous with Peanuts TV specials, and many of my possessions represented the first wave of media merchandising and cartoon commercialism.

By early adolescence, I’d discovered a new love (though I still faithfully fed my newspaper strip addiction).  I’d not had much interest in comic book super-heroes until the Amazing Spider-Man came along.  Here was a high-school honors student, ridiculed and bullied, who gained his “amazing” powers from the bite of a radioactive spider received while on a science field trip.  Suddenly my life was transformed by monthly forays into the life and adventures of a hero who—except for chance circumstance—could be me!

Unexpectedly, the kid behind the spider mask struggled with the same adolescent angst, and teenage tribulations I faced daily.  He swung his way through the same social and cultural turmoil of the sixties and seventies as I did.  He taught me that power brought unanticipated responsibilities and that weakness wasn’t necessarily the absence of strength.  He made me think about things, and he introduced me to a Universe at which I continue to Marvel (now along with my son and students!).

As a young adult, my daily newspaper reading habit introduced me to a comic strip that took social commentary to whole new level.  Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury captured the essence of—and brutally satirized—current events and cultural trends for a generation of media-oriented Americans.  Few creators have so precisely placed the day’s issues into perspective as has Trudeau (sometimes irreverently, or even offensively, but always poignantly).  Even as my own socio-political perspectives grew more conservative, I continued to appreciate Trudeau’s sharp wit and clever insights even when I disagreed with them.  I’ve grown into middle age with Michael Doonesbury, and along each step of the way Trudeau has powerfully marked and vividly depicted every significant cultural and personal milestones along the way.

The experience of fatherhood created an entirely new context for the comics to reflect the realities of my life.  As my children were growing up, no creator did this more entertainingly than Bill Waterson with Calvin and Hobbes.  It didn’t take much reading for me to recognize my own children—and myself—in the antics of this irrepressible boy and his beloved tiger.  Calvin’s exaggerated imagination and rebellious defiance took a strikingly different tone than did the Peanuts of my youth, yet in many ways its daily premises remained fundamentally similar.  Kids are kids;  life is life.  And for a generation of us who really couldn’t believe we’d become our parents, it provided much-needed comic relief.

Calvin summed up in caricature what really seemed to be happening between contemporary parents and their kids.  In a cultural of mediated precociousness, raising kids was more a matter of negotiation than nurturing.  Still, behind the not-so-subtle cynicism, there were always, always moments which helped us remember the wonders of childhood and relive the joys of absolute irresponsibility and unlimited dreams.  In a fitting twist of comic irony, the foreword to the first Calvin and Hobbes anthology was written by Charles Schulz.

I continue to have my favorites in the daily comics—Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, Heart of the City, among others.  I also remain a devoted comic book reader, though my “maturing” tastes (and career as a teacher of History and Government) led me to switch my focus from Spider-Man to Captain America.  (I’ll have more to say about the Good Captain in my next “comics” post; so be sure to watch for that!)  My enjoyment of comics now has sadly become a more private experience, though I thoroughly enjoy those “shared moments” that still come my way.  I hope this new “category” of posts will provide the opportunity for more.

I’m not exactly sure if my life has been reflected in comics, or if it is really the other way around.  I do know that comics, more than any other medium for me, capture and express the “spirit” of this last half century through which I’ve lived in a unique and meaningful way.  Their message is often exaggerated, sometimes whimsical, but always an artful and insightful rendering of the “essences” of life’s experiences.

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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