Discovering Dark Knight

By Max Delgado

In the closing days of junior high, I watched my friend Dennis sit in the principal’s office with his mother as she cried, and he looked down at his shoes.  I had been in the main office feigning some other excuse, knowing that the sliver of office window behind the secretary’s desk gave a workable vista to any private meetings being held in the back.  And there they were, in back, his shaggy head down while his mother’s head was bravely raised, tears leaking down her face.

It was the end of junior high.  We were all talking about high school and I vaguely wondered how this would hurt Dennis, or those of us who’d gone along.  The nuns used to threaten narcing out our bad behavior to future administrators, and we were too trusting to wonder if this was just a ploy.  Most of us were going to public schools, and maybe the phone call of an irritated nun wouldn’t matter, but others of us were filling out enrollment forms for Catholic schools and the threat felt very real.  

The Utrup girls were going to Notre Dame, an all-girls school near Franklin Park mall; Drew, Mark and I were aiming at St. John’s, the prestigious all-boys school past the western suburbs; and Dennis was looking at the biggest flagship school of all: Central Catholic, down the road.  I was an unremarkable student.  And a poor test taker.  I felt one call would end me, and so I was trying to orbit the wreck to see how bad it was.

Dennis’ mom wiped another wave of tears off her face and I had my answer.

I never actually asked Dennis why he did it.  I assume he, like all of us, wanted to be remembered for something other than our awkward arc of puberty, or how we’d dressed as fourth graders.  We wanted badly to be adults.  A few of us were starting to experiment with drugs and I was trying to make an educated choice.  Drew said something about mushrooms.  A perpetually anxious kid, I’d heard about “bad trips” and asked Drew how common those were.  He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said: “As long as you’re comfortable with who you are, you won’t have a bad trip.”  If I knew anything at fourteen it was that I was deeply uncomfortable with myself, and so Drew’s casual reply kept me sober for the next five years.  Someone should give him an award for that.

Dennis cemented his legacy differently.  One morning, near the coat rack, he passed out fifty dollar bills like playing cards.  “Here, here,” he said, as the hands of our classmates rushed him.  Dennis, like me, had often struggled to find his place.  We were part of several groups, but initiated into none.  My best friend was in high school now, and we’d lost touch.  8th grade and I wasn’t a kid who hung out.  I didn’t talk on the phone.   Later, watching my sister navigate junior high I realized there was a different way to do it: she had weekend dates planned, she knew how to put an outfit together, she talked on her clear plastic neon telephone for hours.  I had drawn, read, and watched TV.

“Where did you get these?” I asked Dennis, stepping closer.

“I found them,” he said.

It was not an unreasonable response.  There was a lot of drug dealing that went on around our school.  We’d learned to recognize the back and forth of deals at the housing projects across the street from us: the gentle jog from stoop to car to stoop again.  When cops came, dealers would throw their drugs on the ground and run.  The girls found several bags of weed once, but never cash.  “Have one,” he said, holding a bill out.  The bills were so clean and crisp and green, I knew that he was lying.  But I took one anyway.

Money was perpetually an issue as a kid and so my compass was all fucked up.  I completely overestimated the impact that a fifty dollar bill could have.  For a moment, I felt rich.  I felt like we no longer had to charge our groceries, or stress about the car breaking down.  I played with the thought of giving the bill to my mother, but realized she’d want to know where I got it.  Maybe being broke was bad, but being a thief was worse, so I decided to sit with it a few days, keeping it in my dresser drawer, underneath a stack of comics.

At this point we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment off Secor Road, with a parking lot pushed against the back lot of a Farmer Jack’s Supermarket, separated by a narrow painted fence.  Past that fence and past that Farmer Jack’s the world got bigger: a coffee shop, a bagel shop, a music store, a bookstore, an electronics center, a Sears, a pharmacy and several restaurants.  In the five years that we lived there, I spent nearly every free hour I had sneaking through a gap in that narrow fence, walking through that loading area, passing by those oily green dumpsters, and slipping into the foot-traffic of West Central Avenue, vainly looking for a comic stand.

Two days after getting that fifty dollar bill, I snuck through that fence again.

On this day I crossed the intersection into Westgate Shopping Center, and walked into Thackeray’s bookstore.  Thackeray’s didn’t have a comic stand, but they did have a graphic novel section -- one of the first I’d ever seen.  It wasn’t Garfield and Doonesbury.  They had darkly illustrated books of characters I’d never heard of, and glossy deluxe editions of characters I had.  I’d never had enough money to actually browse responsibly, but things were different that day.  I had a neatly folded bill inside my wallet, and an hour to myself.  In the end, I bought something called The Dark Knight Returns.  It was thick and glossy and expensive.

I carried it home carefully, like a carton of thin-shelled eggs, almost expecting it to disintegrate between my fingers.  I’d never spent more than ten dollars on anything on my life, and I didn’t feel like I really owned it.  I know for sure I hadn’t earned it.

I got in bed.  I started reading.

I can say, with distance now, that I was not ready for what Frank Miller had done.  I wasn’t ready for a satire of Reaganomics, or the logical interpretation of the Joker as a serial killer, or for the blurring of hero into villain.  I had never re-read chapters just to get them.  I had never looked words up while reading.  I had never asked my mother to explain the significance of baptism, just so I could understand what Batman meant when he jumped out into the rain.  I had never reached the end of a book and felt a tension between wanting more pages, but respecting that they story needed to end there.  In time, I came to memorize the book.

For better or worse, it made me a reader.  And I hate to say this, but it made me a writer, too.

Later, we found out where Dennis had gotten his money.  He had snuck the bills from his grandmother’s safe, which she’d left open by mistake.  It was her savings.  More calls were made.  A stream of parents came in eventually and met with the principal; more kids sat in that same office with their heads down.  I don’t why, but my mother was never called.  I graduated from St. Mary’s in June owing Dennis a debt of fifty dollars, but really something more.  Something I’ll never be able to repay.

Anarchy Via US Mail

By Kevin Leslie

I never read Watchmen or V for Vendetta during their original run. I guess I should disclose that.

I read them much later in high school as collected works. I did read them back-to-back, though, which is an interesting way to experience them, and probably not the most common.

I got these books when I was fully immersed in comics again after a decent layoff. I acquired them through one of those book club mailers. It was a sci-fi and fantasy book club, and when you joined you could pick out a number of books with the promise that you would continue buying other books at full price over the next year. If this sounds familiar it was the same concept used for CD clubs. As an aside, they would also send you a book or CD each month whether you asked them to or not and if you didn't send it back right away they charged you for it. Awesome mail scams!

Anyhow, I needed to order some books to stay current with the mail order book gestapo, so I asked for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, which in turn would become Christmas presents for myself. I'm sure that I became aware of Alan Moore and his work through Wizard Magazine, which I was reading at the time. This is kind of like saying, "I saw a piece on Dostoevsky in People Magazine, so I think I'm going to check him out." I guess I should go easier on my teenage self. Where else was I going to discover this stuff? The primary periodical in my house was Reader's Digest. I did enjoy Drama in Real Life, but there was no mention of the writer who raised comic books to literary heights.

I sat on the couch (love seat if you want to get specific) in our living room that Christmas Break and read both books. I remember the tree lights blinking on the pages and the silence as I pored through them.

These comics were a revelation.

One of the wonderful things about my mom that I'll say over and over again is that she never censored what I read. She didn't care as long as I was reading. V for Vendetta is about anarchy. Even as a high school kid, I was a rule follower, but Moore's arguments against rules made sense to me.  Both works mention homosexuality in a compassionate light. Embarrassingly, I probably thought homosexuality was a mental illness at that age. These were books full of ideas and full of politics. They were dressed up in genre, but they also transcended the silliness. Reading these works signaled a shift for me. I needed more from my reading afterwards, but the lack of a decent comic book store left me isolated from good comics. Crappy superhero comics with adult themes were plentiful in the wake of Alan Moore, but comics for adults were still many years off in my future.

I still have my hardcover book club copies of both books. I’ve probably loaned these to more people than any other books I own, especially since the movie versions came out.  Someone would see them on the shelves and say: “I saw the film. Is this any good?”  And I'd let read for themselves.  It’s amazing that I didn’t see either of those films in the theaters. Alan Moore’s issues with the films have been well documented, but I’m not sure if that's what kept me away. I didn’t need to see someone trying to recreate greatness.

The first time I read Watchmen and V for Vendetta lives as a perfect memory in my head. I felt like I was floating, my mind buzzed with Moore’s ideas, the excitingly non-American artwork; even the smell of the pages is burned in my head. The movies looked like every other action movie out there. Burn your DVDs and read the books, preferably by a Christmas tree with a cup of cocoa (alcohol optional).

Boom Boom Started It

By Chip Grimshaw

I can't really remember a time in my life when I didn't have comics.

One of the first ones I remember reading was the issue of The Avengers in which Hank Pym is on trial, shortly after he hits his wife.  Luckily for 6-year-old me, I didn't have the issue in which the punch actually happened, and only had this trial issue because of my grandmother.  Whenever we drove from Ohio to Arkansas to visit, she's always have some "funny books" there for me to read.  Her gifts started a small collection that I increased by one or two issues each trip, picking up whichever issues caught my eye with no real sense of continuity or story runs.  All that mattered was the good guys beating up the bad guys in 4 color goodness.

No, the first time I started buying a title on a regular basis was because of Tabitha Smith, a mutant known at the time by the not-so creative name of Boom-Boom.  At the age of nine, I was spending my reading time going through role playing game sourcebooks rather than comics.  But one that I purchased regularly was the Marvel Super Heroes game, and one set of adventures in there was about Secret Wars II.  Of course I had read the first Secret Wars (when I could; mostly I ended up getting a mixture of issues in Toys-R-Us three packs, or when I went to the drug store) and so I was familiar with The Beyonder, the omnipotent being with a Jheri curl and a leisure suit.  But the over 40 issues needed to keep track of Secret Wars II was a bit out of the price range for someone who didn't even have a paper route.  But I knew what had happened.  The Marvel Super Heroes sourcebook was a 60 page summary designed to let homemade super heroes save the day amidst all of this hullabaloo, and it gave an overview of everything I'd missed.  So when I saw the poor little runaway mutant girl on the bright yellow cover at Food Town one day, for some reason I just had to have it.

So I found myself in possession of X-Factor issue 12.  And I knew next to nothing about X-Factor.

I knew that they were the original X-Men, and I was familiar with Iceman due to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  But that's about it.  No idea that Cyclops had left his wife to join the team.  No idea who the guy was in the hospital, and why it was a big deal that he was going to have his wings amputated.  No idea, really, about what else was going on in the aftermath of the recent mutant books crossover Mutant Massacre.  But I was suddenly filled with the urge to know.  I suddenly had a quest: find the past 11 issues that I've missed, and then keep up with each new issue.  To find out what happens next.  And pretty much until X-Factor petered out around issue 120 or so, keep up I did, along with so many other books I just *had* to read in order to know as much as I could about Boom Boom, Bobby Drake, Scott Summers, and so many other characters.

Chip Grimshaw is an occasional writer and full-time code monkey. He actually understands the Summers family tree, and could explain it to you if he remembered where he left his diagrams.