How comic books set me on the road to reading

My earliest companions included “Richie Rich” and “Little Archie,” but also “Jane Eyre” (the comic).

CHRIS PIZZELLO/INVISION/AP/FILE
Jadelyn Chu reads a “Suicide Squad” comic book at the 2016 Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Confession: I still read comic books. They got me started, after all, on the road to actual books, and were daily staples of my childhood, usually purchased for 10 to 25 cents. I’d lie on a towel in the backyard after a swim in our neighbor’s pool, dripping on them. On family vacations I’d buy a new one each morning at the little roadside store en route to the beaches of Cape Cod. Pages filled with sand, some were lost to wind and tide. They were not meant to value beyond the first read, I blithely thought. 

Little did I know what some of those slender paper ephemera could fetch now. An Ohio man just donated his collection of some 140,000 comics valued at $2.5 million to the University of South Carolina, where the rarest will be relegated to an underground safe alongside medieval manuscripts and Hemingway papers. 

In a way, I’m glad I had no idea. As a kid I simply and happily devoured comics, hardly aware that I was actually reading. I cannot remember not reading them. I was born at just the right time, in 1950, not long after comic books began to become popular in the United States and Britain. Their golden age took root and then blossomed in my preteen youth. Comics introduced me to word play, jokes, and the rules of trading (the neighborhood was replete with comics), not to mention the rich, imaginative worlds of true literature found in the “Classics Illustrated” comics series. “Jane Eyre” was a book, too? And “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”?

My all-time favorites included “Richie Rich,” “Little Archie,” and best of all, the aforementioned “Classics Illustrated.” What I wouldn’t give to have that rich collection of densely illustrated fare today, with their intricate and irresistible illustrations and word balloons. But my mom kept none around once she figured we’d surely outgrown them. I never truly did, of course. And so I turn to eBay or Amazon to find replacements.

My grandson is spending his eighth grade year at a boarding school, and as light relief from the rigors of an intensive academic regime, I mail him a couple of “Richie Rich” comics each week. Mea culpa, academic advisers. But my reward came in his latest letter home in which he exclaimed, “They are soooo much fun to read.” Take note, academic advisers. Until “Richie Rich” came onto his horizon, Connor read nothing that wasn’t required. He had no trouble reading; he just could not be bothered to do it. He’s on a slippery slope now, and if things go according to my devious plan, he’ll be into “The Great Gatsby” before long. The book, I mean.

I had childhood friends whose parents banned comic books, thinking them too frivolous. They became prodigious readers, too, so I’m not saying such light early fare is the way to go. Whatever works, and comics certainly did for me. 

The comic book market in the U.S. is valued today at just over a billion dollars. Think of the many other places that money could go! But it was always money well spent for me as a child, pennies at a time. And it’s added up to decades of an engagement I don’t plan to break. 

I’ve just ordered a few dozen of my favorite comic books for Connor, to parse out in weekly mailings. But you’d better believe I’m reading them first. Right after I finish rereading “The Great Gatsby.” 

The book, I mean.

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