The Comic Book Cure

Sometimes escapism is necessary to keep from going out of your gourd.

Author by Sam Thielman
Credit: Carolyn Raship

For most of 2017, I worried.

I worried because I’d been laid off in April when my son was two months old, I worried because I was a reporter and if you’re a reporter who doesn’t worry constantly you’re probably not cut out for the job, and I worried about whatever was on offer. Donald Trump, climate change, ICE, what to buy people for Christmas, North Korea, and so on. To chill out I read utterly depraved horror comics, including a long story called Providence, about monsters who bring forth humanity’s hidden urges, and Spiral, a Japanese manga series about people who turn into, among other things, hideous man-sized snails. Both helped a lot.

Also, I played with my little boy, who knows nothing of monsters or hiding his urges but liked tearing and eating comic books as much as I liked reading them.

Escapism is not always good, but sometimes things are too awful to look at directly for as long as they last, and in those instances, escapism is not merely recommended but necessary to keep from going out of your gourd. When I had a baby who didn’t sleep more than four hours at a stretch until month 13 and no job and a game show host with great big holes in his brain had just been given the unilateral authority to end vertebrate life in the solar system, I found new go-tos: Johnny Ryan’s filthy monsters-fighting-in-Hell comic Prison Pit, an extremely bloody series about atrocity-committing zombies called Crossed, and that comic about hidden urges I mentioned earlier, Providence, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, a sort of ode to the influential horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.

People talk a lot about “problematic faves” when they’re describing stuff they enjoy but can’t explain enjoying; I don’t really know how or why to address the moral content of these books except to say that they seemed to understand the interior lives of people who confronted unambiguous evil—how messed up and weird it makes people face down something really, really bad. And exaggerated cartoon evil can help you cope with the less-certain real-world version, and whatever grappling with it does to you.

I’ve been seeking that kind of help for a long time. When I was a weird little eleven-year-old who got his ass kicked all the time at an elementary school in a town you’ve never heard of in the Appalachian mountains, I would ask my longsuffering mother to take me to the unincorporated township a few miles away so I could visit the county library and borrow the paperback collection of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s Saga of the Swamp Thing, about a bog monster with a very attractive girlfriend, which helped me feel better. I checked it out every few weeks, long after I had the captions and speech bubbles memorized, in the hopes that the librarians would eventually relent and let me keep it. (They did not.) For reasons I still can’t explain, I didn’t tell her about the ass-kickings.

This was well before the sudden proliferation of “graphic novels” that now merit their own section in Barnes & Noble, so my main comics consumption happened at the grocery store, where there was fully half an aisle of glossy magazines and other printed matter, and I could cram my chubby backside into one of the little floor-level cubbies where they kept the comics and pore over the X-Men or Venom or especially Batman, who seemed to be going through a lot at the moment.

My parents were not crazy about this hobby. Shouldn’t I be thinking on whatsoever things were just, pure and lovely, as St. Paul recommends? Shouldn’t I be paying more attention to my schoolwork? My grades during the bullying year were very bad; they remained somewhere between disappointing and punishable throughout middle school and high school. I was the kind of kid who heard a lot from teachers about how much potential he had.

I don’t think my laxity was to do with comics, but my dad seemed worried that he’d contributed to the whole thing. I had learned to read on his own boyhood copies of European comics like the adventures of boy reporter Tintin and the pun-filled comedy of French barbarian Asterix, and of course his collections of the old Peanuts newspaper strip, all of which lived at my grandparents’ house down the street. (Truthfully, I do love comics in large part because of him, and that has made my life, most of all the early and hard parts of it, better, not worse.)

Because our family was and is very seriously Christian, I also read Andre Le Blanc’s The Picture Bible, a book of 223 beautifully illustrated Bible stories purchased for me to offset the baseline depravity of all comics, I suspect, and Jack Chick’s utterly terrifying tarot-card-sized comic-book religious tracts, which the well-meaning would leave on that same grocery store’s video game cabinets in the hopes of converting the heathen players of Fatal Fury and Street Fighter II.

A good day at the grocery yielded ice cream, Lunchables, an issue of Batman, and at least one tract with some kind of baroque horror flourish like the candles made of human fat that druids put in the first jack-o-lanterns, according to Chick. (The wording in this panel is ambiguous and the art isn’t very good so for years I thought Chick meant the jack-o-lanterns were made of human fat, which was disgusting and awesome).

In consequence, I learned to love all the weirdest and most visually interesting parts of the Bible (the Revelation chapter of The Picture Bible is rad) and learned about Hell from Chick and Alan Moore (who sent several characters there over the years) in equal measure. And I dreamed of becoming a big-city reporter like Clark Kent or a foreign correspondent like Tintin.

Comics let me out. Out of class, out of the miasma of depression that settles over a hometown that might accept you but on principle will never respect you, out of adolescence and its ritual humiliations, and as I grew up, my comics grew up, too. I got bored with the constant drama of the mutant superheroes constantly fighting over who stole whose girlfriend in the X-Men, but the women in the Neil Gaiman’s fantasy-horror comic The Sandman, about the ruler of the land of dreams, were very interesting. By the time I had a beat-up Toyota Celica to drive around our little town’s half-paved roads, I was reading grouchy social commentary by Dan Clowes in his anthology of off-the-wall humor stories, Eightball, and the little pamphlet copies of Chris Ware’s sad-funny Acme Novelty Library, both of which showed up regularly at my favorite of the junky used bookstores nearby in Asheville, on display next to various zines and magazines about music I wasn’t cool enough to listen to. Humor and horror, I began to learn, were both things that surprised you, and when you were expecting the worst all the time, you wanted to be surprised.

Moore talks about the unexpectedly comforting quality of horror in his introduction to that old Swamp Thing book. “Like it or not, horror is part of our media, part of our culture, part of our lives—none of which answers the question of why an entire society should stand around engrossedly reading Dracula while up to their jugulars in blood,” he writes. Perhaps reading horror is “a useful, if not vital tool with which we enable ourselves to investigate and understand the origins of horror without exposing ourselves to physical or mental harm,” he suggests. That sounds right to me.

One day after lunch in fifth grade I crept up behind the kid who bullied me and kicked him as hard as I could. Then I ran hell-for-leather to the principal’s office, where I said—truthfully, to my mind—that he had kicked me first. I omitted that the most recent occasion had been the previous day, and when Collin protested, no one believed him.

I don’t exactly think that reading Johnny Ryan’s outrageous tales of Cannibal F–kface, who kills and frequently eats the other monsters, helped me get a new job last year. Or that Moore’s stories about the Monkey King, who massacres a houseful of people while a single boy cowers in his bedroom listening to “the sound exactly like someone eating lettuce,” made me brave enough to ambush a fellow 11-year-old and then lie about it. But I was tired of being bullied, and I needed to do something about it, and I didn’t have a plant creature helping me.

But the other kid wasn’t a monster from Hell, either. Things worked out, more or less the way they would have in the comics if all the monsters, good and bad, had been approximately in fifth grade, the way the boy tormented by the Monkey King was. Now that I’m grown, these images have lost very little of their power for me; the more personal the stories of murder and unknowable creatures, the better. And that’s because comics, especially scary comics, show us drawings of things that are on the inside of us somewhere, and those things, at least, we can confront.

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.