Thursday, January 22, 2009
Learning to read and learning to have opinions
I learned to read at a very young age and I got good at it quickly. The person most responsible for this is my mom, who read to me a lot and answered a lot of what must have been my jillion questions. The topic that turned me into a reader was dinosaurs. My parents bought me many picture books about dinosaurs, as well as about the extinct creatures from the Age of Mammals and books about living creatures and I read them again and again. Wanting to know more about dinosaurs turned me into a competent and confident reader, largely because even the shortest names for dinosaurs are three and four syllable words, so I was not afraid of big words from the very beginning. By the time I was four, I could tell the differences between a brachiosaurus and a diplodocus and a brontosaurus and a camarasaurus fairly easily.
This picture is a camarasaurus. You can tell by the shape of the head and it's not quite as big or thick through the body as a brachiosaurus.
I mean, duh!
It was a while before I developed a taste for books that had no pictures in them, but when I started kindergarten, I was able to read the books the school assigned to fourth graders.
The school was very impressed and wanted to skip me a bunch of grades, but my mom was worried about how I would fit in, so the compromise was that I skipped only one grade.
Again, good call, mom!
Given my love of books with pictures in them, it was only natural that I started reading comic books. My mom was worried that her precious little prodigy was wasting time reading such nonsense, but I wasn't forbidden, so I read them just as avidly as I read anything else that had text and pictures. I distinctly remember that the first comic book I bought cost twelve cents, and that my older brother Michael complained bitterly when the price went from a dime to twelve cents, as I would grumble in my turn when they jumped to fifteen cents a few years later when I was an avid reader.
I mean, it gets hard to stretch the allowance with this kind of inflation.
I've been looking at the publication dates on the Internets for comics I distinctly remember reading, so I must have been plowing through these things when I was no older than five or six, and they must have belonged to my brother and to older kids in the neighborhood. These early tomes lead me to my first literary opinion.
There was a difference between DC Comics and Marvel Comics, and the difference was DC Comics sucked.
I started reading comics in about 1961, when I was five, and I gladly read anything available. Superman, Archie, Little Lulu, Fantastic Four, Uncle Scrooge, what have you... you put a comic book in front of me and I was out of your hair for a good fifteen minutes to a half hour, except if I ran into a new vocabulary word I couldn't suss out. (I'm hazy on this memory, but either my dad or my mom showed me how a dictionary worked very early, clearly an act of self defense.) Li'l Matty Boy "got" the idea that the stuff in comic books aren't real, just as I "got" that dinosaurs and wooly mammoths weren't around any more, but tapirs and blue whales were. (And let's hope it stays that way.)
So though I might have read as well as a nine year old is supposed to read, I still had all the emotions of a five year old. Coleridge gets credit for the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief", an odd skill that is necessary for people to enjoy fiction, but that isn't a good description of the emotions of little kids. They have no disbelief to suspend, until they get tricked a few times.
Here is the cover of the comic book that started my disgust with DC Comics. "The Death of Superman", Superman #149, published in 1961. In the caption at the lower left it tells us that it is "an imaginary novel", but I didn't know what that meant when I was five, so I plowed right through. I was devastated. Lex Luthor killed Superman! What were they gonna do next month? I cried and carried on, until my brother Michael explained what imaginary meant, and I was at least consolable. But I experienced an amazing number of epiphanies through this experience.
1. There were levels of imaginary. This was an imaginary story that didn't really take place in what I already understood to be an imaginary world.
2. There were these people called writers, and some of them you just couldn't trust. There were "good writers" and "bad writers", and the experience of reading a bad writer could be just as miserable as drinking sour milk or eating a stale cookie.
3. There were things called plot devices, and if you noticed them while you were reading, that was probably because they weren't very good.
DC Comics in the early sixties was running out of ideas at a scary rate, and I have to wonder if they didn't have some kind of "Old Switcheroo" dartboard in their office. Let's have Superman lose his powers and everybody else get powers! Let's have Perry White as a cub reporter! Let's make up some new color of Kryptonite (a.k.a. CheapPlotDevice-tonite) that does something new, goofy and non-lethal to Superman. (There was one rule to the stuff, as far as I could tell. Only green Kryptonite was lethal.) I devoted multiple brain cells to cataloging the different colors of Kryptonite, just as I could tell the differences between different sauropods in my books or different songbirds in the fields around my house, until I figured out Kryptonite was both imaginary and lame.
Were the switcheroos and Kryptonite the only weak plot devices in DC Comics? No, hypothetical question asker, they were not.
Don't even get me started on Mr. Mxyztplk. Or Bat Mite. Or that Green Lantern's completely limitlessly powerful magical ring won't work on anything yellow. Or any of the incredible, lame, stupid, extra powers Superman would turn out to have if the plot required them, thankfully cataloged by our friends over at Superdickery.
DC Comics didn't stay this lame for the entire half century that has passed since they successfully disgusted me, but I still have this lingering distrust of them.
And so concludes this little trip down memory lane... wait, I see a hand up. Hypothetical, do you have a question?
Matty Boy? I was wondering... am I just a cheap plot device?
Hypothetical question asker, how can you say such a thing? Of course not! You're a vital and integral part of the Lotsa 'Splainin' team. Let's not have any more talk like that.