Happy new year, everyone. I have been mostly cleaning my study to create space for some new arrivals, but I wanted to take a moment to mention some new additions to the bookshelves here at head office.
It’s Larry Gonick’s two-volume Cartoon History of the Modern World, which is in turn the conclusion to his three-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, about my love of which I have written before. I loved the early volumes when I was a kid, and while there are some bits you want to fact-check (and, as in history, maybe a few things that aren’t quite appropriate for younger readers, although of course younger readers love that sort of thing), I think that for the level of detail they contain they’re actually pretty good basic history books. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun. There are five volumes in total, plus a Cartoon History of the United States, which I had at one point.
In a previous post I mentioned going to a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books about popular culture and occultism. During this talk, he mentioned a point about the idea of the tulpa in Tibetan Buddhism, a point I’ll return to later, and I mentioned that there was actually a Batman villain in the late 1980s who was a tulpa. I mentioned it briefly in the last post, but yesterday I found 20 issues of the Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics for a quarter each, so now I can talk about it in a little more detail.
Our story runs from Detective Comics 601 to 603 and, as I mentioned before, is written by Alan Grant, pencilled by Norm Breyfogle and inked by Steve Mitchell. In it, we start out with a mysterious robbery committed by a young man who crumbles to bits when Batman catches him. Later, an identical-looking young man tries to rob Wayne Manor. Batman investigates and discovers that these are tulpas or thought-projections sent out by Tenzin, a young Tibetan man who is desperate for money to repay the gangsters his father owed $5,000 to.
Worried that the gangsters are going to kill him, Tenzin creates yet another tulpa, drawing on his own anger and resentment at the criminals and gives it the form of Mahakala, the protector of the faith. Mahakala is an emanation or projection of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who has a frightening, demon-like appearance but is actually a good guy (a letter in the letter column of issue 604, complaining about the comics’ misrepresentation of Tibetan Buddhism, points out that in this respect Mahakala is actually similar to Batman). However, the comic is quick to point out that this is not the Mahakala, but merely a physical representation of Tensin’s negative emotions in the form of Mahakala.
This is comics, of course, so Mahakala gets a slight redesign, complete with a bitchin’ huge axe.
Anyway, the gangsters shoot Tenzin, then run off, pursued by Mahakala, while Batman tends to the injured youth. Cue a load of Batman running around Gotham trying to stop the crooks from being murdered by the tulpa. Since this is a mystical matter, Bats tries to enlist the help of Jason Blood, the human host of the Demon, Etrigan, but Blood, who as we all know hates Etrigan, is having none of it. Breyfogle gets to draw some angry-ass Batman eyes.
Blood’s psychic sidekick Randu goes along with Batman, though. Batman hits Mahakala with a wrecking ball.
But the tulpa ain’t dead, and when Randu gets in trouble, Blood has to overcome his reservations and intervene as Etrigan. Grant loves writing Etrigan and Breyfogle draws the hell out of him, so this is pretty good news.
Anyway, Etrigan takes out the tulpa, then decides he’s going to kill the gangsters, but Batman tries to intervene. Etrigan whups him too, but then lets him win in one of his fits of demonic whimsy. The End.
So, other than that I got a chunk of my childhood for $5.00, which is a pretty great deal at today’s prices, what’s the relevance of this story? I think the point that Vincent was making in his talk was that the popular conception of a tulpa, shared by occultists and comic fans alike, is of a sort of physical manifestation of a concept, and that this conception originally derives from the work of Alexandra David-Neel.
However, David-Neel’s description of the tulpa seems to be not quite right in Buddhist terms; they’re not really imagined going around smashing stuff and cutting off one of Batman’s ears with a big damn bronze axe. Instead, they’re a sort of tool for thinking about things, and it’s all much more complicated, which may make for great meditative practices but not such good comics. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, so I’ve read this big summary of what a tulpa actually is, but I’m afraid I’ve just come away with “not like in the book; much more complicated.” If I’ve got a detail wrong, please forgive me.
But that’s always the way: the reality of a cultural or religious practice is always much more complicated than the summary of it — just look at the difference between the popular conception and actual practice of “selling indulgences,” for instance — but it’s the popular conception that stays with you. These ideas take on a life of their own, regardless of the original intent, and often outlast their originators.
I seriously didn’t intend for that paragraph to say that Alexandra David-Neel’s interpretation of the tulpa is kind of like a tulpa, but it’s worked out that way a bit, hasn’t it?
Anyway, I just thought I’d expand on a point of trivia from an earlier post at great length because I do like talking about Batman.
On a sadder note, the artist who drew this issue and so many other great comics, Norm Breyfogle, recently suffered a stroke, leaving him partly paralysed, including his dominant left hand. A fundraiser raised $100,000 to cover his medical bills, but sadly that’s only half of the needed total (my non-US readers are reminded to be appreciative of our health care systems). However, apparently the Hero Initiative are also getting involved, and DC Comics are releasing a hardcover of his work earlier than scheduled. Breyfogle is posting messages to Facebook and seems to be on the path to recovery, so that’s all good news. But this just demonstrates how precarious the existence of an artist can be; that’s why the work of the Hero Initiative and others is so important.
I have written in the past about superheroes and archaeology, largely inspired by the papers given at the Monstrous Antiquities conference back in November. Today, I just want to point out that there is a surprising amount of archaeology in the 1979 Spider-Woman cartoon … or, well … sort of.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Spider-Woman cartoon, but it seems to have been largely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Wonder Woman, right down to the spinning transformation, here called a “spider-spin.” And yeah, you know you’re back in the olden days when Marvel is trying to cash in on a DC property.
Anyway, the cartoon basically resembles what you’d get if you got one of the less grounded Bronze Age creators (poor old Bill Mantlo, perhaps, or maybe Bob Kanigher (I may mean Bob Haney)) and just fed them an absolute shitload of cough syrup and told them to have at it, oh, and to try to work in something educational to satisfy the FCC. Maybe the easiest way for you to see what I mean about this show’s bizarre mix of earnestness and foolery is just to watch an episode.
Our very first episode is “Pyramids of Terror,” and it kicks off with Spider-Man being in Egypt (for some reason) where he is captured by a villainous mummy. Spider-Woman, her bumbling sidekick and her plucky sidekick go off to Egypt following a series of mummy attacks, and then … erm …
It turns out, right, that these mummies came from space in their pyramid ships and were buried under the sands of Egypt lo these many years ago, and I guess they inspired ancient Egyptian culture, because why not? The classic motif of the Sphinx shooting beams out of its eyes is gone one better here — not only does it have eyebeams, but if the beams hit you, they turn you into a mummy!
Eventually, Spider-Woman realises that the motive force behind the alien spaceships is, no fooling, Pyramid Power and uses her webbing to turn the lead ship into a cube.
It’s like a checklist of pop culture Egypt:
did ancient astronauts …?
So this is all well and good, but what’s weird is that it keeps happening. Spider-Woman is a very globe-trotting sort of heroine, and she winds up in contact with a lot of past-type stuff.
She goes back to the 10th century to fight some Vikings:
Fights some Amazons in a vaguely Mexico-ish sort of Amazon temple thing:
And there’s a few more temples and castles as well. Apparently it all gets a bit more UFO-y in the later seasons, but I’m not there yet. I really just wanted to share that mummy episode with people because, you know, pink pyramid spaceship with sphinx-shaped mummy-ray turret.
OK, um … sadly, I get the impression that most of the fun things you hear about speakeasies are probably not true — the tables flipping over and so on. Or at least they were not that common.
What’s interesting to me about speakeasies is that they’re this very direct encounter that many people have with criminality, with breaking the law. And it was a law that was, at least in many places, routinely flouted. If you read contemporary discussions of it, they’re pretty funny. Here’s Ring Lardner on the subject:
It seems like about the biggest difference between now and 7 or 8 yrs. ago in big cities at lease is that in them days most cities had a law that you must close your saloon at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock. Now days according to the law, they ain’t no saloons so they can and do stay open as long as they feel like.
Which may strike a telling parallel to contemporary debates about legalisation of what-have-you; you tell me.
However, there are some odd people who join in the fight for or against the right to get your drank on. Here is shameless scandal-monger Herbert Asbury in his lesser-known oeuvre Gangs of Chicago:
Interspersed among the marchers were many elaborate floats, graphically condemning vice of every description. … Another, equipped by the Norwegian churches of Chicago, was occupied by twelve young men in armor, and a thirteenth in pink tights, representing the god Thor. About his neck hung a placard saying: “The Great God Thor with his hammer. The Norwegians will help smite the saloons.”
Thor, do you like speakeasies?
Reader Adam asks:
Cultural appropriation of Roman deities once the Romans settled in Britain?
Boundaries between “religions” were pretty permeable back in the day. The Romans, in particular, liked to decide that local deities were the same as the ones they worshipped back home. This makes sense if you think of the Roman religion as already having tons of distinct little local cults, each with its own sacred sites, traditional festivals and so on. So when they arrived in Britain, the Romans blended their religion with the religion of the locals easily enough.
Consider if you will Sulis Minerva.
The Roman name for Bath is Aquae Sulis, and Sulis seems to have been the local deity of the springs. When the Romans turned up, they identified Sulis with Minerva, and everything went great from there.
But not every local deity prospered in the same way as Sulis Minerva. Many of them are known from a very small number of inscriptions or artefacts. Here is one from Nettleton:
DEO APOLLINI CVNOMAGLO COROTICA IVTI [F] VSLM
(“To the god Apollo Cunomaglus, Corotica son of Iutus, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow.”)
This is the only source we have, as far as I know, for Cunomaglus (“hound lord”). Some have suggested that he was some kind of hunting deity, which is not crazily inconsistent with Apollo, but we’re really just speculating.
So there are lots of combinations of British and Roman deities, and this is pretty standard practice for the Romans. It’s only when the Romans encounter a culture that is dead set against assimilating (Judaism, for instance) that things start to go a bit awkward.
Paul asks once again:
Powers behind the throne — from evil viziers to royal stewards.
Powers behind the throne are a weird facet of certain monarchies. I teach a fair amount of Tudor history, and it’s something you see a lot in the reign of Henry VIII, with people squabbling over access to the king and targeting the various “powers behind the throne” like Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. And it’s very odd, because it’s … it’s neither the case that the monarch is a helpless puppet nor that the favourite/minister is merely a royal servant. Once Cromwell gets taken out, he’s not replaced by someone else so much as he’s just replaced with nobody, and government gets very confusing.
In another way, the “evil vizier” is a very convenient fiction in a monarchy. If you’re opposed to the crown’s policies, you can blame them on “evil counsellors” and not have to confront the fact that the king is a dickhead. And if you’re the king and people are very unhappy with you, you can blame it on being misled by your ministers, throw them off the proverbial balcony and escape with your skin. In my mind, I associate this with the Byzantine Empire?
I have more questions to answer, but I will save them for another day!
Let me put my cards on the table here: I like my comics pretty mainstream, with the notable exception of Age of Bronze. I am a superheroes guy, broadly speaking. Nothing against the underground stuff, but that is what I seem to have wound up liking and I’m OK with that. I don’t love ’em uncritically, of course — I don’t do anything uncritically, as you may have noticed. But I think that the fairly widespread attitude of rejecting cape comics as “mainstream” or “conventional” or whatever is completely misguided. A Kirby issue of Fantastic Four has more non-mainstream content in it — in the form of weird, brainbending Kirbyness — than nine out of ten earnest, diary-style comics. Now, that may not be true of an issue of New 52 Justice League, but I’m just pointing out that while there’s a lot of garbage in there, I think it’s a big mistake to write off the genre.
And the impression I sort of got from this exhibit was a little bit like the one I got from the BL’s science fiction exhibit — that when they have this geeky material, they sort of handle it with tongs? I don’t know. Anyway, let me recount my experience.
So you walk into the exhibition room, which is this usual hushed, dimly lit sort of space, and there are the usual glass cases full of open books, such as you might find in any British Library exhibition. And there are also these mannequins in men’s clothes and Guy Fawkes masks standing around in packs and one or two other cool pieces of art here and there. The exhibit is divided up into various sort of zones — you proceed through the zones pretty linearly, but within them you can wander around and look at stuff. There are some tablets with comics on them attached to the benches, which I thought was cool, and there are some computers with interactive stuff near the end, which I didn’t really look at. Most of the zones are just exhibit spaces, but there’s one set up as a little artist’s studio where you can add your drawing to the ones other people have done and one that’s like a little faux office/studio space with reference works and stuff.
The zones are divided up thematically: there’s one on identity, one on politics, one on sex, etc.
OK, the good stuff:
It is the British Library, so they have everything. Little underground publications, typescripts, weird unpublishable 3D comics, super-collectible stuff, whatever. They’ve even got a Renaissance “pauper’s bible,” one of those brightly illustrated collections of Bible stories. It’s pretty cool. (I don’t think it’s that actual one, but you get the idea.)
They cast their nets wide in tracing the influences of comics — there’s a big spread-out front page of the Illustrated Police News (a Jack the Ripper headline), for instance. They’ve also got illustrated ballad sheets, children’s picture books, political cartoons, and so on and so on, to really give you a full grounding in the “illustrated trash literature” genre that comics grow out of. It’s thorough and it’s informative.
They nail some of the key things that are particularly British in British comics and that have since become standard in American comics, such as the kind of wry, cynical attitude toward violence (although you could argue that this actually existed in US comics but was just suppressed … what do I know?).
What’s not great about it?
One of the problems with British Library exhibitions in general is that people tend to spend a longer time reading a book than they would looking at a vase or something. This isn’t so bad when what you’re just looking at a medieval Bible or a Chinese scroll or something, but when it’s an Oor Wullie strip and it’s in English (or Scots in this case) people will stop and try to read it. And what this means is that if there are a lot of people in the exhibit, it can turn into one long line just veeeeeery gradually shuffling along in front of the display cases.
The thematic division is interesting, but it felt broken up to me. Maybe it’s just that I would have preferred to see it done chronologically, but it felt weird and bitty to me, and I felt like it obscured the connections between things rather than highlighting them.
It really lacked American comics. Now I know that this is the British library and they have British things, but I don’t think I saw anything (or barely anything) from Marvel UK, for instance. I just think that from the war onwards you can’t really understand what’s happening in British comics unless you see where the US influences are pushing them and how they’re responding to them.
I also thought there was a bunch of predictable silliness. Like, they show a two-page spread from“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and the sign says, I don’t know, something like “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, exemplified by this panel of him sitting on a bed crying.” Now I know that (hat tip to Chris Sims) it is impossible for DC comics not to try to create cheap pathos by having Superman cry, but what I can’t understand is why the card doesn’t say “we see Superman confronting his own mortality, embracing it as part of his humanity and settling down to raise a child with his beloved Lois in anonymous old age” since that is what happens literally on the very next page.
For Pete’s sake. I don’t think I saw the phrase “grim and gritty” at any point, but there were parts of it that were remarkably like the 1990s. And I’m not talking about the good Grant-Morrison-JLA 90s either.
Oh, and there was a display of HP Lovecraft paperbacks, because Lovecraft influenced British comics writers. Which of course he did — although not as much as they claim he did; they’re using “Lovecraft” to stand in for “spooky occult shit” — but if HPL gets in, why doesn’t Jack Kirby? Or Alex Raymond? Or or or or …
In short, while I think it was an interesting if incomplete look at UK comics as an art form, I think that if you were looking for an exploration of UK comics as a cultural phenomenon I think it was lacking in some ways. I realise Crisis was important, but there must have been half a dozen issues in there, and not one of Commando or Starblazer. I get what they’re trying to say — comics aren’t just for kids, they aren’t just superheroes, look at all this other stuff they have done. And maybe to an audience that’s not as aware of that diversity, that’s fair enough. Maybe all the stuff I took for granted is news to some people.
If you like comics and archaeology, and you haven’t at least taken a look at Eric Shanower’s epic Age of Bronze, you’re missing out.
Writer/artist Shanower is telling the story of the Trojan War in comic form, and I mean the whole story — the abduction of Helen, Achilles hiding among the women, Troilus and Cressida. Not just the Iliad, but everything that’s anything to do with the story. It’s an entirely human tale — no gods, although the characters certainly believe in them — and it’s compelling reading.
What’s really exciting to me is the amount of research that Shanower does to bring his Troy to life in honest-to-Schliemann Bronze Age glory. Age of Bronze is one of the only comics I love enough to collect it both in trades and in singles, and every time I’m somewhere with a good comics shop, I look around to fill in the gaps in my collection. The most recent time I was in the US, I picked up several back issues, including this special:
This is the special in which Shanower just talks about the research he did to prepare for the book and the decisions he made (such as basing the Trojans on the Hittite culture). There’s pages of great stuff like this:
I have a lot of time for this. Every issue of the comic also contains a section of literary and archaeological discussion — basically footnotes — in which Shanower goes behind the scenes of the book.
I love this comic a lot. So what’s wrong with it?
Well, the most important problem with Age of Bronze is that it comes out … basically every once in a while. I’ve been collecting it since about 2003 or so, and it hasn’t made it to issue 40 yet. The fighting at Troy has really only just started.
So, after a relatively small amount of sleep, I got gradually back up and headed in for the third day. Unfortunately, I had mistimed my entry a little bit and missed the first half of Michael Bintley‘s paper on Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles. Now, I have written about both historical fiction and pseudo-Romano-British Arthuriana previously, and I feel like I have a pretty good grip on the genre, so I didn’t feel lost even though I’d missed the beginning, but what he seemed to be mainly talking about was the use of archaeology specifically in the Warlord books, like the quest for all the different artefacts and whatnot, and the sort of things it says about how Cornwell portrays people’s relationship with their past as expressed through material culture. This may be relevant to my next post about Skyrim! Assuming that ever happens: I haven’t picked up a controller since Thursday. But yeah, the half of this I got to hear was super interesting and I hope to read it in some form eventually. Also, I am reliably informed you should buy his book.
Next up was Edmund Connolly, talking about “Facing the Fear of the Past in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet. This was one of the ones I felt least able to comment on, because what I know about Edith Nesbit you could write on my shoe. I have a very vague memory of having read Five Children and It when I was little, and somewhere on my backup hard drive is a copy of the Forgotten Futures supplement with the Psammead stories in it. In the course of writing this, I discovered the novel is free on the UK Kindle store, though, so I guess I’ll be reading it soon. Anyway, Connolly explained (and I speak subject to correction here) that Nesbit deploys this sense of fear relating to things that predate our own memories in all three of the Psammead books, but that the first two have sort of distancing or insulating mechanisms that aren’t present in the third one, which has higher stakes and “darker and more fearsome” adventures. He also pointed out that the book is dedicated to E. A. Wallis Budge. A member of the audience (I don’t remember who) suggested that this was tied in to a crush that Nesbit apparently had on Budge! Archaeological gossip and artistic gossip: it’s that kind of interdisciplinary thinking you read this blog for.
I write too much, and I thank Ethan Doyle White for letting me get some images up in this post, because I foolishly didn’t take any photos or anything. His talk was “‘To worship me, take wine and strange drugs’: archaeology and occultism in the work of Kenneth Anger.” Now, the only thing I knew about Kenneth Anger is that other filmmakers like to name-check him, so I was pleased that we got a bit of a beginners’ intro before an explanation of how Anger’s work was influenced by Thelema which was, in turn, of course, influenced by Crowley’s ideas about Egypt. Anger liked to use historical and mythic symbolism in his film, and his (now lost) documentary about Crowley’s Italian abbey is in itself a piece of archaeological filmmaking. So yeah. For example:
So, to be completely honest with you I have not watched either of those films all the way through, but I would suggest you probably don’t want to look at them in the office.
Now what really struck me about the role played by Egyptology in this piece and others during the conference was the prominence of bullshit Egyptology, and it occurred to me (as it occurs to everyone who thinks about Egypt more than I do, i.e. ever, I’m sure) that bullshit Egyptology, like several other bullshit fields of knowledge, has a longer pedigree than its authentic counterpart. Quackery is older than medicine, astrology is older than astronomy, and we like to talk like the one has replaced the other, but it ain’t so. I was reminded of the concept of Aegypt, which is Christopher Lehrich‘s word for the fictitious but more-or-less coherent Egypt dreamed up by medieval Renaissance philosophers and their ilk. I’m probably grossly oversimplifying that idea, but if you are interested you can check out his book.
And then it was time for tea.
You know, with the best will in the world I don’t think I’m going to get through this day of the conference before bedtime, so what I’m going to do is do the first two sessions today, then the last one and the film night tomorrow, and then see what I can do about Sunday. You can see why it’s taking me so long: three sessions in and my mind was already boggling, although Ethan assured me that there was no connection between Anger and John W. Parsons, which would have been all I needed to lose my shit.
Right, next up: Louis Greenberg, who although an academic was there in his capacity as an author. He read a section from a short story he has in The Book of the Dead, an anthology of modern mummy fiction edited by conference co-organiser John J. Johnston, and the which you can purchase here. It even supports a good cause, so you have no excuse. My notes seem a little sparse on this one, probably because I was just chilling and listening to the story and therefore didn’t get my note-taking going, but I seem to have written down a) that the monumental architecture of Paris and the monumental architecture of Egypt get juxtaposed (and I thought of Adele Blanc-Sec at that moment) and b) that women’s bodies and monsters’ bodies are constantly being described in fiction, whereas men’s are usually much more sketchily delineated. That’s very true, I thought to myself, but I never thought of it before. And once you’ve said that about something, that’s a good paper.
Speaking of woman and monsters, next up was Ellie Dobson to talk about “Uncanny statues: female mummies as art(efacts) in Victorian and Edwardian culture,” and this one went on to talk about how in some ways female mummies are often portrayed as statues or objets d’art, to be admired for their beauty, while male mummies (in both cases, the rise-up-and-walk kind) are portrayed as artefacts. I think she may have got through this without using the phrase “sex object,” which was pretty good. But maybe not. And of course, the Victorian era is the time of the public unrolling, which it doesn’t take much imagination to characterise as creepily sexual. Apparently Sidonie-Gabriel Colette (that’s just Colette to you) once appeared in a mummy-unwrapping inspired burlesque (with a woman in drag in the role of Egyptologist) that sparked a riot.
Next up, “Stratigraphy and Super-Strength: exploring the role of archaeologists in graphic novels” by David R. Howell. All week I’d been thinking to myself “what’s going to happen is that he’s going to say the Blue Beetle (the original one, that is) was an archaeologist, and then I’m gonna say, well, no, originally he was a police officer, then he was retconned into an archaeologist, then he was killed off and replaced by a scientist, and then he was killed off and replaced by a kid armed with the original Blue Beetle’s magic scarab only it was retconned to have been technological all along.” And then I would give a little nervous laugh and be like “man, I’d better not say that kind of shit in public.” Three guesses what I said.
You talk like that, people will think you’re the kind of dude that has a Blue Beetle action figure on a shelf in his living room in front of God and everybody.
Anyway, so this was a good overview of archaeologists in comics, and it identified them as basically people who get murdered, which I think it largely for the reasons discussed yesterday — ie that unless the archaeologist is actually the hero, he or she exists to a) start the trouble, or b) show how the trouble works, and the most efficient way to do that is to get devoured. But Howell also pointed out that there are this batch of archaeo-heroes from the 40s: you got your Hawkman, your Dr Fate. And I think it’s interesting that Hawkman was also retconned to be sci-fi in the 80s, and then eventually unretconned again, but who cares about Hawkman?
But interesting, again, that archaeology and magic, rather than science, go hand in hand. Hawkman’s powers definitely come from Aegypt, not Egypt.
Oh, and Planetary uses archaeology as a way to explore not just history in general but the history of comic books specifically, such that a comic book about archaeologists is about the archaeology of comic books. That’s clever. Also, Howell says “graphic novels” throughout, which I totally respect but there’s no way you will catch me doing that. I already showed you my Blue Beetle action figure (well, one just like it) so it’s not like you’re going to think I’m a bigger nerd than you already do.
Man damn, that was long and we are only 1/3 of the way through this whole thing. Excitement! And more excitement tomorrow, as we explore why archaeologists are wimps compared to astronomers. Also: THRILL-POWER OVERLOADor, as I like to think of it, my paper.
When I was a kid, I had two local comic book shops. One was located on California Avenue in Palo Alto: that was Comics and Comix, which I believe is no longer around in that area at all. The other was located in a little mini-mall near a doughnut shop; that was Lee’s Comics, which is still around, although in a different location.
Both comic book shops had this idea for getting rid of their old stock, which used to be very common but which you seldom see these days. They would have these long boxes stuck underneath the back-issue boxes, and you could get X comics for a dollar — 12 for a dollar at Comics & Comix or 5 for a dollar at Lee’s. And since I would read a comic in a few minutes, and since I didn’t care about being up-to-date, that is where I would get my comics.
And I firmly believe — I am completely serious — that this really helped to create a lot of who I am today. Because, of course, when you read comics in patchwork like that, you have this constant sensation of starting in the middle. A lot of people don’t like that feeling, and I understand that. They like stories to have a beginning, a middle and an end — and I contend that superhero comics are not really like that, but that’s another story.
(It occurs to me that you can still get really cheap comics at Lee’s, and in fact the prices have not advanced very much on 1990 prices, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. I bought some there the last time I was in the US. Where was I?)
Anyway, some comics writer I like — Grant Morrison, very likely — has said that one of the things that is good about reading comics is the sense of starting in the middle. And when I decide to jump into a primary source, that is kind of the feeling I get, sometimes. Like, I am not going to go back and dig Isabella Bird out of the bookcase, because a) I am too lazy, and b) that awful woman, but it was clear from reading it that Bird was in conversation with a bunch of other contemporary writers I know nothing about, and that gives the text a kind of richness and strangeness that is a really valuable feeling.
One of the reasons I did my thesis on the topic I did it on (a particular subtype of late Anglo-Saxon burial) is that the thing I was studying seemed engimatic to me in a way that was very, very interesting. And also because it hadn’t been done, which if you’ve ever written a thesis you’ll know is pretty much a thing. And one of the reasons I’m always buying primary sources from periods I don’t care about (I bought a big collection of source papers from like the 17th century despite the fact that I could not care less about the period, for instance; well, it was also £1) is that I love that shock of the mysterious that comes from the language and the references and the … well, everything.
Presented as an example: I have opened to a random page in Chronicles of Bow Street Police-Office, Vol. 1, one of my treasures from the every-so-often Cambridge University Press sale of damaged stock.
Much petted as was Townsend, and profound as was the belief in his sagacity, one is inclined to suspect that he was something of an impostor. He seems to have impressed everyone — thieves included — with an idea of his infinite experience, a belief he was enabled to encourage by a good memory …
‘Now,’ said he, ‘I’ll show you some fun, only stop, when we soon shall see the coves and motts fall to grub; they’ll then doff their sham phizzes. You’ll see I shall soon unknennel them.’
I mean, I know enough about the world of the 19th-century detecting game to get the gist of it, but it does make me want to get to know this guy better.
I might be disappointed, mind you. To return to my comic book analogy, when I was a kid I had a copy of Avengers #320 (an Alpha Flight crossover, no less, and with an appearance from the Avengers Soviet opposite numbers, who include Perun, the Slavic god of thunder).
(This may have something to do with my long-standing love of Stingray, the Boringest Avenger.)
That issue weirded me out when I was young. They were all trapped in this weird dimension, with these little black energy … creatures … or something, and it was like a dimension Shaman had created to save the world by trapping nuclear fallout in it, I mean — it was mad. And it ended with these dead guys (from something called the Peace Corpse) returning as a huge fused cosmic monstrosity called The Combine. And there were Atlanteans in it too.
A year or so ago, when I finally got a chance to read the next issue, it turned out to be really boring. But when I was a kid I thought it was weird and even disturbing.
I’m always very pleased when some historical incident does turn out to be as crazy and exciting as the myth we build up in our heads, aren’t you?