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.