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Defender of Comics

A tenth grade honors Communications class, a group of student sit in a circle discussing the graphic novel Persepolis. From a premade list, the question “Do graphic novels have the same literary merit as the other books studied in this course?” is selected. A girl stands up in the circle, as she has often done before. Twirling a brunette strand of hair between her fingers, she looks out at her peers, many of whom she considers her friends. With an air of total confidence, she says, “I don’t know. I guess not, because graphic novels are just too easy to read and they don’t really stick with me like other books, you know?” She smiles at the wisdom she has just dispelled and settles back down in her desk. Her fellow students nod their heads in agreement, as they usually do when she speaks. Plot twist: the geek in the room gets up, straightens her Captain America t-shirt, makes a poorly timed joke about justice, and slugs her. The girl would have seen this coming if she read Spiderman comics.

Okay, so I would never actually hit Maddie. But in that moment I wanted to. I wanted to hit her for disregarding the author of the book she’d just read, who found a unique way to tell her incredible life story. I wanted to hit her for never having struggled through the Watchmen and realizing why it’s important Mr. Manhattans’ father was a watchmaker or why the Comedian’s badge keeps popping up in frames. I wanted to hit her for that seventh grade girl, who wandered around the graphic novel section of the Ridgedale library, looking for Manga because that’s what all my friends were reading.

It was on that day in the seventh grade I discovered the Runaways. I picked out the books because the cover art was pretty and three consecutive books in the series were sitting on the shelf, a rarity in public libraries. I checked the books out, waited for my dad to be finished in the Adults’ section, went home, and began digging into them.

The story of The Runaways unfolded in front of me. In the beginning chapters, a group of six teenagers who find out their parents are super villains. Upon witnessing their parents murder a young girl, the teens run away from home and set out to take down their criminal empire. I read the entire first volume in two days. I was at a difficult time in my life, when I too felt trapped by evil parents and as powerless as the characters at the start of the story. Because of this, I thought the comics were the greatest literature ever written.

But nothing notable happened after that. The books went back to the library. I did not develop superpowers. I did not overthrow the tyrannical overlords that were my parents. I grew up. I realized that my parents were not really evil and I did not in fact need special powers to feel more secure with myself.

Although, I did read a lot of superhero literature afterwards. Why? Because comic books are awesome. I could go on and on about how they combine art with literature seamlessly or how graphic novels like the Watchmen have stood up to novels like To Kill a Mocking Bird on Times 100 Best Novels. But that’s not why they’re special to me, or thousands of other readers. They’re special because they represent generations, the reason why characters span across decades. The heroes come to life and truly save us. When America needed a soldier, Captain America punched Hitler in the face. When nerds needed a mascot, Bruce Banner and Peter Parker strapped on their lab goggles. Since the 1930s, comics have been witty and thought provoking when it comes to issues like racial tension and gay rights. People discover themselves within them, just like I found myself in the Runaways.

Quite recently I got to talking with my pastor about Marvel comics, prompted by the Captain America shield screen-printed on my favorite t-shirt. Through the conversation it was revealed that he too was a fan of the Runaways and before I left church that day he gave me a DVD disc with a digital copy of volume one burned on it. I took it home, downloaded a comic book reader onto my computer, and read through the comics a second time.

By the time I finished the Runaways for a second time, I realized another reason I loved this series. This time I did not need to hear that adults were evil and heroes rebelled against any and all authority, so I finally saw how well written the comics truly were. For the first time I noticed the foreshadowing in the earlier issues. A lot of the drama and a frank humor I write in dialogue today were inspired by the way the Runaways speak to each other. The characters are dynamic. They start out naïve and innocent and eventually come to be independent and brave. They realized that there is good and evil in all people, including their parents.

Flash forward to the tenth grade honors communications class. The geek straightens her posture in response to the implication that reading graphic novels didn’t matter, that they couldn’t make her a better reader, writer, and person. She is not wearing a mask to hide her identity. She does not hit Maddie or zap her with laser beams or use telekinesis to levitate her desk. There are no great speeches of good versus evil. There is simply a defender of comics, a defender of herself, raising an unwavering hand as her classmates gasp in horror. The adversaries lock eyes. The battle begins.



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