When a graphic novel is just a comic book

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Let me pre-emptively say how well I know that comic books aren’t just for kids. I worked at one of the country’s best comic stores in its founding days, and it’s almost reflexive for me to sound that clichéd warning: Graphic novels are legitimate forms of literature!

I’ve been reading Alan Moore since his days at Warrior. I own some of the original Raw magazines that serialized Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

But none of that was on my mind recently, as I was trying to distract my grumpy 6-year-old, and somehow began telling him the glorious fable of a man who had been exposed to cosmic rays until he could stretch his limbs like rubber, and how that man, “Mr. Fantastic,” battled evil aided by his fiancé, who could turn herself invisible, and her kid brother, a human torch, and their friend Ben Grimm, an orange, rocky “Thing.”

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“I want to read that,” my boy said. A thick bound volume reprinting the original Fantastic Four comics of the 1960s immediately went on my library list.

My son and I are up now to Fantastic Four #5 in our bedtime readings, working through the heroic battles against The Mole Man, The Skrulls From Outer Space, The Sub-Mariner, Doctor Doom. I loved these reprinted comics as a child, burying myself in the early Marvel universe where good conquered evil, and characters used phrases like “my young, fiery friend” and “You’re safe now, lad.”

Reading with an adult’s eyes now, the stories are so unsophisticated, so much simpler than I remembered. I try not to snicker over the nuance-free plots. I cringe every time Sue Storm, “The Invisible Girl,” is captured as a hostage or quarreled over as a love interest.

None of it matters, though, when I see my son take the book along on long car drives, intently finding his way through the story, asking questions about new vocabulary words that always seemed deliberately pitched above the level of target readers, spurring them to learn more, giving them a sense of belonging with the smart nerds who were the story’s stars. I love to see his solemn blue eyes study the cut-away diagram of the foursome’s secret headquarters, taking in the space demarcated for geek havens like “Observatory” and “Giant Map Room” and “Laboratories.”

The plots and language were equally anachronistic in the 1980s and 1990s when I came across them, after all, and that never bothered me or held me back. Comics, in many ways, are what grew me from child to adult. I moved on from Fantastic Four and X-Men to Zot and Watchmen, Los Bros. Hernandez and Harvey Pekar, to “graphic novel” instead of “comic book.”

I met my first boyfriend working at a comic book store, and we remained lifelong friends. I think of him whenever I read a graphic novel, and how could I not? He gave me a piece of original artwork from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” as a wedding gift, kept me posted long-distance on the latest promising authors, nagged me on the phone for not making time to read Jeff Smith’s “Bone.” He died last year, too young, willing me a book by Carl Barks, the celebrated “Good Duck Artist” admired by adults as well as children. How he would have loved to see my son carry on the family reading tradition.

For my little boy, though, asleep in bed right now clutching his big book of Fantastic Four, it’s OK to appreciate the book for exactly what it is. He doesn’t need adult storylines, sophistication, an official stamp of legitimacy, or even the weight of remembering loved ones now gone. It makes me glad to see, and to remember, that comics can also just be for kids.

Freelance writer Rebekah Denn blogs at www.eatallaboutit.com

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