The Great Escapist

The 80s introduced us to many wonderful new cultural fads. Among them were Cabbage Patch dolls, leg warmers, sickeningly-sweet hair gels, parachute pants and graphic novels. Mercifully, the first five died out, but graphic novels seem here to stay.

If you don’t know, graphic novels are no more novels than decaf is coffee, fast food is food, or free love is free. Ultimately, they’re comic books with a Cross pen in pocket and a liberal arts AAS in hand. Or more exactly, they’re comic books … just with more narration.

Not that they aren’t good to read and look at — many of them are excellent. But, no matter how anyone else cuts it, to me they’re comics. And no shame in that, since comic books were my escape, salvation, and — aside from my dog Happy — probably my best friend for a whole lot of my childhood.

I started reading them in second grade and pretty much quit in seventh grade, when, thanks to Mad magazine, I said goodbye to my Baby Years and hello to Adult Sophistication. But for as long as I was a naive li’l rube, comics nourished my mind and imagination in a way school and any other writings never did.

My mother, a teacher of the Good Old Days’ drill instructor type, was not convinced of comics’ educational value. In fact, the word she most often describe them with was “dreck,” the ancient Greek word for tasteless swill. But to her credit, while she never endorsed the comic monkey on my back, she didn’t make a big deal of it either.

Those old comics look pretty lame compared to today’s. The panels are small, the print microscopic, the art pretty unsophisticated. But none of that mattered. Remember, I grew up in a print-based, black-and-white world. Reading was the main source of education, information and entertainment. Pre-cable TV was limited to station access (we had three at best, only two of which weren’t cursed by “snow”). The stations signed off at 11:00, and color TV was way off in my future. Radio was even more limited: The only station we got was WNBZ, which went off the air at dusk.

Besides, most TV programs were adult-oriented, and thus beyond my developmental reach. Kids’ programs that weren’t, were beneath my dignity. Miss Frances, though sweet, was a bore; Pinky Lee was a drooling nitwit. The sole exception was Howdy Doody. Howdy and his pals like Chief Thuderthud, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, Phineas T. Bluster, and Clarabell the Clown were (aside from cowboy programs) the length and breadth of my video entertainments.

By contrast, comic books offered infinite entertainment and amusement, limited only by one’s cash flow (which for me was very limited).

There were the superheroes like Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Green Hornet, Supergirl, and if rodents were your thing, there was Mighty Mouse.

There were war comics. They were just kids’ versions of the mens’ war magazines. Keep in mind, WWII’s end was only ten years in the past, the Korean war’s only three, and almost all men had served in one or the other, or both. So, by proxy, boys were involved as well.

They all had the same plot, probably even the same dialog (“This one’s for the Sarge, ya dirty Kraut!”). And of course there was the standard cast of characters: The cigar-chomping Sarge, hard as nails, but caring and devoted to his boys, God love ’em. The Lieutenant, war weary, but always in command and control. The Chaplain, either blessing or burying them.

Among the low enlisted men were the former Brooklyn hoodlum who spoke fluent “Deeze, Dems, Dose,” and found a home in the army. The guy who always had a book, wore glasses, and was called Professor. The Kansas farm boy — blonde, wide-eyed and innocent, who seemed to always get shot to pieces after single-handedly blowing up a machine gun bunker. Yeah, sure, they kidded him a lot about being just a sodbuster, but they all knew he died a real man.

The war movies of course complemented and probably increased our interest in those comics. John Wayne moving down legions of enemies on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific brought to the fore all kinds of atavistic stirrings and impulses. That the closest he got to any war zone was Republic Studio’s Lot B never even occurred to us — and probably doesn’t occur to his fans today. No matter — we were hooked.

Toward the end of my comic book days I read Archie comics. They were pretty much high school soap operas (which if I remember correctly, is a redundancy) There was the classic love triangle between Betty, the sweet kind blonde; Veronica, the snotty and aloof rich girl; and Archie, the putz who ignores Betty and chases Veronica, who hardly knows he exists. Rounding out the cast is Jughead, clearly headed to fame as Riverdale’s village idiot. It was all high school hip, at either it’s best or worst, depending on your point of view and station in the hierarchy.

Where happiness reigned

Though most comics seemed geared to males, there was one noticeable exception — the romance comics. Just like the war comics were kid versions of war magazines, romance comics had their adult equivalent in romance magazines. Some of the comics’ titles were Young Romance, Girls’ Love Stories, Secret Hearts, Heart Throbs, and My Desire, ad infatuatum. And as improbably as it might seem, I read darn near all of them, thanks to a girl who lived down the street named Bonnie.

Bonnie’s dad was stationed at Plattsburgh AFB and they lived here for one glorious year. Her mom was a Mexican woman her dad met in Texas, and Bonnie was the most exotic female I’d ever laid eyes on. She was a small, dark-skinned cutie, with a mop of curls and huge brown eyes that could’ve melted a stone heart. Since my heart was the standard issue, you can figure the results.

I met her in the summer, after our fifth grades, but since she went to St. Bernard’s, running into her was a random thing. Anyhow, one day while we were talking, she asked if I wanted to read her comic books with her.

Comic books? A girl with comic books? I’d never heard of such a thing.

Of course I said yes.

When we went her room, she went over to a bookshelf and pointed them out.

Holy Moly! Not only did she have a collection that dwarfed mine, but they were all stacked in perfect order and were in mint shape, as opposed to mine, which were lying all over my room in total disorder and disarray — pretty much like the rest of my life.

We began what became our standard comic book ritual: She picked up one comic and handed me another, and we each read it. Then we swapped comics and read the other one. And then came the post mortem moment of truth.

They all had happy endings, of course, but that was taken for granted. But what Bonnie the sweet little romantic wanted to know was if those endings happened, for real, with real people, in the real world. For example, the Ugly Duckling theme.

“Do you think that happens a lot?” she’d say. “Like in high school? Do you think a football star would really end up with a girl with glasses who’s kinda plain and in the Library Club, instead of with the captain of the cheerleaders?”

“Oh sure,” I’d say, not believing a word of it.

I mean, yeah, I was just a little pisher, but I’d seen enough already to know who the Alpha Males did and did not end up with. It was obvious to all of us Kappa or maybe even Delta males. Still, what I thought didn’t matter, but Bonnie’s feelings did.

“I mean,” I went on, “the library girl was plain looking at first. But when she took off her glasses and did something with her hair and clothes, she was really pretty. That football player sure thought so, didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” she said, a dreamy look on her face, “that’s what I thought too.”

All our comic book sessions went exactly like that — me reassuring her True Love was real, if not inevitable.

At the end of the next summer, her dad got stationed somewhere else and they moved away. As a service brat, moving was something she’d always done, and was no big deal. But it sure was a big deal to me. That was 65 years ago, but still, whenever I walk by her house I think of her.

I’ve no idea where Bonnie went or what she did after leaving My Home Town. I only hope that somewhere along the way she met a great guy, fell in love, got married … and they lived happily ever after.


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