I first discovered the white boxes while crouching in the closet of our spare bedroom. It was early June. James and I had been married for just over a month and I was sorting through our now-joint belongings in an effort to arrange, combine and rid our household of duplicate items. At first sight of the boxes, I sighed. More stuff to go through. But on second take, I determined the contents were probably harmless. Unlike most of the boxes I’d sorted through that afternoon, these eight boxes were stacked in neat tight rows, each topped with its own matching lid. In fact, they looked like they belonged in a law library or a museum. Like whatever was inside them deserved to be painstakingly preserved.
Even after three years of dating, I knew marriage would still teach me a lot about James. But these boxes intrigued me. Did my husband have a collection of precious museum artifacts he had failed to mention? Was he a purveyor of rare art? While my mind wandered in Fantasyland, my eyes caught sight of a logo on one of the boxes – a red and black balance scale with the letters CGC printed on the side. I was still dreaming of exotic treasure and priceless gold coins when I glanced at the words printed below the logo: www.CGCcomics.com.
Comics? A la Archie and Veronica, Superman and Captain America? Hesitating, I tucked my hair behind my ears and peeked inside one of the boxes. I pulled out a faded issue of X-Men #129 wrapped in plastic. I lifted another lid and thumbed through row after row of comics clad in plastic bags. Shanna: The She-Devil, Superman, Catwoman, The Warlord. I stopped after the fifth box. All comics.
Holy shit, Batman!
I grabbed the X-Men issue and, as loud as I could while wearing socks, marched downstairs to the kitchen where James was cooking dinner.
“What’s this?” I asked, dangling the see-through plastic bag in the air as if it were a dirty diaper.
James looked up from the pot of spaghetti boiling on the stove, “Hey! Careful with that!”
“What is it?”
“It’s a comic book.” James said, quickly drying his hands on a dishtowel.
“No duh. What’s it doing in your closet?”
James took the book from my hands and placed it gingerly on the dining room table.
“So…?” I asked again, with my now-empty hands planted on my hips.
“I used to collect them,” he said.
“Yeah, when I was a kid. I haven’t bought any in … forever.”
“How long?” I prodded.
“A long time.”
I stared at him, waiting.
“OK, a few months.”
So that was it. I had married a comic book collector.
Over dinner, while I told James how much I liked the red peppers he had added to the sauce, I tried to swallow the fact that my husband had eight boxes full of comic books upstairs. The clean-cut guy with steel blue eyes sitting across from me wearing Teva® sandals and cargo pants didn’t look like a comic book collector. He didn’t have bad skin or bad breath and, as far as I knew, he had never lived in his mother’s basement.
But as I sat slurping noodles, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Granted, comic books weren’t illegal. They weren’t life threatening. And I knew there were far worse skeletons that could’ve been hiding in that closet. It was just that when James and I had met three years ago, I had been beside myself upon discovering that we were both writers. He had a degree in English and a room full of first-edition hardback novels. I had a journalism background and was working toward a master’s in creative writing. On our first date, James took me to The Tattered Cover, Denver’s oldest and largest independent bookstore. Together we ran our index fingers along the mahogany shelves, and when he came across a book whose main characters were named James and Stephanie, he bought it straightaway, unconcerned with the book’s subject matter. As our relationship grew, so did my visions of the two of us as a husband-and-wife writing team lolling the days away in our studio, fielding calls from editors at The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.
A comic book collection didn’t fit into my happy little scenario. What’s more was that I simply couldn’t understand the draw. Comics didn’t have story arcs. Or character development. Or any of the other zillion things my writing instructors had always professed to be so crucial to good storytelling. They had pictures of men in neon tights alongside women whose proportions measured somewhere along the lines of 40-14-30. The only words were caption blocks full of incomplete sentences for Heaven’s sake. Given a thousand opportunities, I would always pick the latest Pulitzer over a trifling comic book. Wouldn’t James? Wouldn’t everybody?
Awake in bed that night, I kept tossing the question around in my head. Comics versus Pulitzers? The answer seemed so obvious. Like, would you wear a coat if it were cold outside? Like, would you rather vacation in Hawaii or Kansas? Like… like James’ QODs!
Back when we started dating, every morning James would ask me a “Question of the Day” (QOD, for short). The questions ranged from the typical (What’s your favorite movie?) to the atypical (What three foods would you choose if you could only eat those three foods for the rest of your life?) to the truly bizarre (What kind of power would you have if you were a super hero?). I remember laughing at James the day he asked me the super hero question. Then, I immediately picked the ability to be invisible.
“How awesome would that be?” I had asked.
“That’s ok… but pretty standard.”
“Yeah, everybody wants to be invisible. I mean, it’s fine. I would still totally adore you if you were invisible. I’m just saying it’s not that original.”
“Ok then Mister I’m-So-Cool, what super power would you have?”
“I’d shoot lasers out of my hands,” he had said, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly.
“Lasers? What for?”
“Who cares what for? Lasers would be bad ass.”
“Well, are you going to shoot people with them, fight crime or what?”
James didn’t reply. Instead, he had held out his arms, clenched fists facing the ceiling, and made shooting motions with his wrists while emitting high-pitched laser beam noises. “Pe-choo! Pe-choo!”
I suppose the laser beam sound effects should’ve clued me in. But at the time, I was so infatuated James could’ve picked his nose and taken me to a Star Trek movie and I would’ve overlooked it. Three years ago, everything he did seemed like an expression of his endearing imagination. Today, not so much.
The weekend following the comic book unearthing, James coaxed me back to the spare bedroom and the notorious white boxes: “Come on. Let me show you.” I followed him but stopped short of entering the room. Leaning against the doorframe, I watched James pull a box from the top of the stack and set it in the middle of the floor. He looked up at me, pushing his glasses to the bridge of his nose. “Come on,” he implored. I took a deep breath, entered the room and settled onto the plush chocolate carpet next to my husband. He lifted the lid and pulled out a copy of The Amazing Spiderman # 265, which like all the others, was tightly wrapped in plastic.
“Comics are like any other hobby. People collect them,” he explained, handing me the book.
I cradled the issue in its crinkly casing and stared at the cover. There was Spidey, decked out in his classic red and blue leotard, swinging from a skyscraper by a web. I looked at James, about to challenge him on the validity of a web strong enough to support a man’s body weight, but he was thumbing through a box, adamant on finding an issue he “just had to show me.” While James searched, I turned the Spiderman comic over and started picking at the bag’s seal.
“Oh, no, no, no,” James cautioned, taking the book from me as if I were a toddler with a shotgun. “You don’t open them.”
“Well, how do you read them then?”
“These aren’t meant to be read. That’s why they’re secured in bags,” he said, pressing back down the tape I had just loosened. “They’re only worth money if they’re in mint or near-mint condition.”
“So let me get this straight: All these boxes are full of comics you haven’t read?”
“No, I read them. When I first bought them. Then I sealed them up.”
James went on to explain in great detail what basically boiled down to this: After being delicately read (without wrinkling the pages or laying the book open flat), each comic was set against a cardboard backing (made specifically for the purpose of comic book storage) and inserted into an acid-free bag, sealed with acid-free tape, and finally set vertically into one of these white archival boxes for safekeeping.
This was more serious than I thought.
Obviously, James’ collection wasn’t going away anytime soon. I couldn’t just put the boxes into the Goodwill pile with his old orange hairdryer and donate them without him noticing. Although the thought did cross my mind. And apparently the fact that I didn’t insist James’ entire collection be kicked to the curb made him even more comfortable being open about his hobby. Over the next few weeks, the white boxes seemed to inch their way from the back of the spare bedroom closet to the front of it. A few times after work, I walked in on James reading a comic or surfing eBay for an issue he was missing. Whenever it happened, I simply bit my lip and smiled. My husband had a comic book collection. I needed to accept it. Maybe even support it. But, good God, how?
A month or so after my initial discovery, James confessed that he also kept a spreadsheet to track his collection. In smart, sort-able rows and columns, he meticulously recorded the author, illustrator, colorist, publisher, page count and publication date of each book. When a new book arrived, he would read it (ever so carefully, of course), enter it into his spreadsheet and immediately bag and box it. In the rare instances when James left a comic book lying out in the open, I’d ponder the cover and try to understand the attraction. Once I learned to overlook the fact that most of the female characters had chests bigger than their heads, some of the art was actually pretty good. Every once in a while I’d even stumble upon a book whose characters were wearing street clothes and had realistic body proportions. Comics without bad guys, damsels in distress and Armageddon? Who knew?
By that fall James’ eight boxes swelled to ten and my husband seemed to spend more and more time analyzing his collection and visiting the local comic shop hunting for special issues and must-have new releases. Whenever he brought more comics into the house, I’d mentally calculate the monetary worth of James’ burgeoning collection. With 300 some comics worth $10 or more a pop, I figured we had close to $3,000 sitting in our spare bedroom closet. Sometimes this made me feel better. Most of the time, though, I imagined how far $3,000 would go on vacation in Hawaii.
Then one day James came up with a better plan for amassing comic books: he’d review them for a Web site. This way, he rationalized, he could get the books for free, straight from the publisher, and add titles to his collection he would have otherwise never purchased. The books he liked, he would keep. The ones he didn’t, he would donate to a local store or pawn off on his seven-year-old nephew. Needless to say, I wasn’t all that crazy about his idea at first. But the notion grew on me, especially once I learned that in addition to regular old comic books, James would also be reviewing graphic novels.
Granted I didn’t know what graphic novels were, but I liked the sound of them immediately. The word “novel” made them sound so much more respectable than “comic book.” As it turned out, a graphic novel was essentially a comic the size of a novel. Rather than tell one chapter of a character’s adventures in 20-some pages, it portrayed the whole kit and caboodle in 200, 300, sometimes 400 pages. The content was often geared more toward adult audiences, as well, which, to me, equated to fewer superheroes in spandex.
James kicked off his new endeavor with a handful of reviews, and the publisher liked his work so much that by winter he was writing several reviews a week. As his contribution to the Web site grew, I didn’t hesitate to tell people about it. “James can’t make it to dinner tonight; he’s got a review due for a new graphic novel that just came out.” It sounded reputable, admirable even. Plus most people, I soon discovered, were too embarrassed to ask what a graphic novel was. Some probably assumed it was a novel with pictures of some sort, while others simply nodded in bogus understanding. In response to those people who did ask what a graphic novel was, I brushed them off as if they were inferior for not knowing. “Well, sort of like a comic book,” I would say. “But written for an adult audience.” If they kept prodding, I’d throw in the kicker. “Graphic novels have even won Pulitzer Prizes,you know. Maus, a biography about WWII and the Holocaust, is probably the most famous. It won in 1992.” Tossing the whole Pulitzer thing into the conversation carried weight – and it worked wonders in shutting people up.
As more and more graphic novels entered our home, James started placing some of his favorites on the bookshelf in our office. To my surprise, I actually didn’t mind this. Every now and then I’d flip through a new arrival just to check things out. But almost a year after discovering my husband’s secret comic collecting habit and with more than a dozen of graphic novels at the ready on the shelf, I had yet to actually read one.
James had been trying to get me to read Blankets for several weeks. But at 600 pages, let’s just say it wasn’t at the top of my to-do list. Eventually, though, I thought I should probably actually read something from the genre I had been telling so many people about. Plus, James thought I would really like the story, which had won several awards and recounted the author’s childhood, first love and entrance into adulthood. Not to mention James had received two copies from the publisher, which meant I could read one copy without fear of tarnishing James’ pristine version.
So one rainy Saturday night in April, while James was out of town, I slid into my pajamas, poured myself a beer, cracked open Blankets and started reading. And reading. And reading.I didn’t stop until I was through. And you know what? I loved every single page of it. The art was incredible. The story had an arc. There was compelling dialogue, strong character development and not a single masked man in sight.Far from childish, it turned out that the graphic novels I had been boasting about to my friends and family were actually worth boasting about.
The minute James got back into town, he told me he had a new idea: He wanted to start his own Web site to review comics. “And graphic novels,” I insisted. Thus, www.BookShelfComics.com was born. James put together a small team of reviewers to write for him while he concentrated on interviewing the creators behind the works. Over the next few months, the site expanded to encompass industry news, reviews, as well as ratings and previews of upcoming books. But James held a soft spot for the interviews.
“I just had the best interview,” he’d say, practically skipping down the stairs after his latest phone conversation.
“This guy… he’s putting his third book together. He was totally fun to talk to, a hilarious guy.”
“What’s his book about?
“This girl who comes back from the dead to fight evil.”
“Like a zombie?”
“Yeah. Man, you gotta see this art. This guy is only 24 years old, but he’s gonna be huge!”
“What’s the name?”
“No, of the book.”
“Oh, Dead @ 17.”
James flashed a copy of the book in front of me. In it were images of a teenage cartoon girl wearing an impossibly short plaid skirt and wielding an axe.
“That’s the dead girl, I take it?”
“Nara. That’s the main character.”
As James jabbered on, I skimmed through the pages. Despite the porn-star miniskirt, the art was pretty impressive. Cartoon-ish, but also simple, clean and consistent. (Consistency, I had learned from James, was one way to tell an experienced artist from a beginner.)
While working on his Web site through that summer and fall, James met dozens of writers and artists in the comic book world, many of whom he formed friendships with. After each interview, I witnessed my husband transform from an overworked, stressed-out corporate servant into an energized, all-around happy person. This comic stuff was having a positive effect. Finally, eight months after he started the site, the creator buzz took hold for real. James decided he wanted to write comic book stories, not just review them. “That is what I should be doing: writing.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. James handed over BookShelfComics to a friend and pursued his storytelling. The timing couldn’t have been better. Shortly after putting the Web site on the back burner, James was invited to edit a graphic novel anthology being compiled by someone he had met through his review site. And so the plot thickened.
James’ foray into writing and editing stories for comic books, graphic novels and online comic strips took off like a speeding bullet. One project quickly led to another and within a few months he landed a spot helping edit another graphic novel anthology titled Postcards. Only this time, the book was slated to be published by hot-shot publisher Random House. James would not only be editing several big name writers and artists, he’d be contributing his own story and helping to pimp the book at national conventions once it was published.
Over the course of the next year, I watched my husband work on Postcards on a near-nightly basis. After his day job as a technical writing supervisor at an aviation company, he’d come home to read scripts, edit dialogue and coordinate with artists, often working through dinner and on weekends. When it came time to write his own story, we brainstormed together on the couch.
“I can’t decide whether the mother should be going out of town or not,” he would say, rubbing his hand through his hair as he thought aloud. “But how can Cora go fishing if her mother doesn’t leave?”
James suggested various plot points and character traits while I listened and asked the occasional question. He talked himself through story lines, antagonist/protagonist conflicts and cliffhanger endings. While he figured out exactly what was needed to make his story click, I figured out something, too. Comics were what made James click. The art of storytelling in graphic format wasn’t just child’s play as I had once assumed. It was a child at heart’s play. My husband’s heart. And that’s what mattered most. Reclining on the armrests of our scratchy beige couch, legs entwined, James asked me whether or not his character should run out the back door in the second scene.
“I love you,” I blurted out.
“What?” James said, thrown off by my unexpected pronouncement.
“I love you.”
“Ok, I know. But what makes you say that right now?”
“I just do. I love the fact that you love comic books so much. That you’re so excited about this character. I love listening to you. It’s cool.”
James sat upright. “Hold up. Hold up. Are you, Stephanie Powell, saying comics are cool?”
“No. I didn’t say that. I said you were cool.”
“I think you said comics were cool.”
“No, you’re cool for liking comics,” I insisted.
James stared at me with raised eyebrows.
“Or something like that," I said. Then we both started laughing.
Earlier this summer, a year and a half after signing on to the book and three years after my discovery of his secret white boxes, James’ long-awaited Postcards hit the stores. On release day, we drove to Barnes & Noble and took a picture of it on the shelf. Then we proceeded to buy all four copies they had in stock – one to show friends and family, one to pass around at conventions, one to put on our office bookshelf and one to board, bag and box for safekeeping.
[This essay was a finalist in the Writer's Studio literary nonfiction contest.]