Strange Radiation

Andrew Willett, unreliable narrator.

gift

Why am I going to Ithaca? Because there’s a reception I have to attend. The reception will be showcasing two gifts recently made to Cornell University] One of those gifts was mine; the letter below went with it.

The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was UNCANNY X-MEN #149. I picked it up in a drugstore in Elko, Nevada. I was not quite 11 years old, and my father had packed me and my sister into our car to go see the National Basque Festival. We are not Basque. I had never heard of the Basque. But drive we did, from my native San Francisco through the desolation of the Nevada flats and back again. That copy of UNCANNY X-MEN saved my young mind from succumbing to a boredom that would surely have cost me my sanity. I read it so many times that the cover nearly came off. I’d thumbed through a few random comics before, usually at the barber shop, but this was the first one I had a chance to study closely: who were these people? What were their histories? What were their powers? Why were they exploring somebody’s ruined underground lair in Antarctica? I spent the long drive home mining those 24 pages for every grain of data; between readings, I stared out the window and speculated about what had gone before.

I was never the same. For a narrative junkie like me, the world of comic books was uncut lightning. Within a few months I was tracking whole worlds full of outlandish characters, and every month something new happened. Much of my pocket money over the subsequent years went to feed my habit. After college I even worked for a while in the field, enjoying a brief position as an editor for an independent publisher before the vagaries of the speculator market triggered layoffs and ruination throughout the industry in 1993.

The collection I have given to Cornell now numbers over 5,000 individual issues, collected from that first day until just a few months ago. The engine driving the ongoing act of collecting has always been the same: to find out what happens next. Its contents trace the development of my tastes as a reader: in its early years, it was mostly concerned with heroic adventure in the most mainstream of veins; but as my tastes matured (and as the comic book industry diversified the kinds of stories it would publish), I let myself wander. Some of the stories in those many boxes is great stuff — Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking SANDMAN, Larry Marder’s bizarre and visionary TALES OF THE BEANWORLD. Some of it is… less great, schlock I convinced myself was palatable purely out of a need to see what was around the next corner for a beloved character. There are superheroes and gods; there are detectives and aliens and perfectly normal teenagers. There are queers and mutants and freaks of all stripes. I have loved just about every minute in their company.

But New York apartments are small, and 5,000-plus comic books take up a lot of space. And, love them though I do, who has time to reread 5,000 comics? I could have sold them, but the most valuable issues would have been cherry-picked and boxed away somewhere, leaving the rest to crumble into dust. And I want these to be read. I am thrilled, therefore, to give this collection to my alma mater. Comics as we know them today are an American art form that academia has only recently begun to study; and in order to study the field there must be primary source material for students to examine. Look at the development of the art, of renderings of the human form; look at the changing culture the stories reflect; look at what is being advertised, and to whom, and how. (It’s not just X-Ray Spex anymore.) I hope that future readers find as many things to enjoy in them as I did — even if sometimes it’s only the thrill of finding out what happens next.

1 Gosh, look. Well, at least they misspelled my name consistently.

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1 Comment

  1. Heather

    Have a great time in Ithaca. I will be thinking of you, especially Saturday night, on the assumption that you will be participating in Cornelliana Night. If you see the Sherwoods, please say hi to Bruce Hewitt and Ron Jon for me. And of course to BJ and any former glee clubbers from our era. Strike Up A Song…..

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