Expertise is Overrated: How I Got Into Comic Books
I’m not an expert. Up until this year, I didn’t know how to get into comics and entering a comic book shop felt intimidating. They seemed like insider clubs where only true connoisseurs, typically dudes, were welcome. The first time I walked into a shop itching to learn about comics, I was greeted with attitude for not knowing the difference between an issue, a trade, and a book. At the time I thought, if this is a place where not knowing something as introductory as this was cause for annoyance, then I sure as hell was going to be shamed for not knowing anything about Marvel or DC or their infamous continuities.
I experience this kind of dismissal or disdain as a woman all the time, even in the spaces that are meant to be fun. Men have been correcting me with the intent of deflating my self-esteem for decades. I’ve lost track of the times a boy has diminished my love for a band, movie, or TV show simply because I didn’t have as much niche knowledge as them. I’d respond by performing masculine confidence, silencing my femme side to escape the false perception that women are fickle; to prove myself as “real” fan. But I stopped caring about the unsolicited validation men wanted to award or withdraw from me and other women a long time ago. I decided that expertise was overrated.
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The first comic that grabbed my attention was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1995). Apparently, as I've learned, it always starts there. I was surprised that a comic could be so strenuous and poignant almost like a piece of literature. It felt incredibly prescient in a time when politics are pure spectacle, sensationalized by the Trump presidency. As the Doomsday Clock moved forward in Watchmen, the real world one had also moved closer to midnight. How could a graphic novel from the 90s not only remain this relevant but also reflect the chaos and instability of our present moment?
My partner urged me to read Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga (2012) next. Saga is an epic space adventure about a couple from warring planets who fall in love and have a mixed race child whose existence represents peace, threatening the status quo of imperialism and war. I poured over Saga, absorbing it so quickly that I needed to re-read chapters to better grasp the philosophical and political overtones. The writing and art respect and challenge its readers, demanding criticality while keeping the language accessible—rigor made available to all and for only three bucks! I had discovered a new passion.
Comics have ignited my love for art again. It has been a long time since the visual arts (my field) brought me joy. I’ve always believed that artists inspire us to thoughtfully appreciate the overlooked and energize us to question the familiar. They are a critical part of society. Yet, visual art remains inaccessible to most people. Its value is defined by the systems that surround it—a superficiality driven by branding that is masked as intellectualism—and because of this, I question its efficacy to impact society. Stripped down, comics bring the layered storytelling of literature and the dynamism of visual art together into a medium that invites deep and sustained engagement. Unlike the visual arts, they don’t require an MFA degree to connect with provocative, controversial, and complex content.
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My partner Matt Hodapp (podcast producer extraordinaire) and his friends at First Issue Club Podcast (smash that subscribe button) asked me to be a guest on their podcast recently. On the show, they review #1 issues, the very first issue or story of a new comic. I read the three new No. 1s they were reviewing and called into their studio in Kansas City. Truthfully, I was intimidated to share my opinions and insights because “I’m not an expert,” I thought to myself. Nerves aside, I did the damn thing, and thanks to the Clubbers, I realized that at the core of reading comic book issues on a regular basis is not expertise, it’s discovery—an active practice of learning about ourselves through encountering the unknown.
Finding comics evoked a new sense of freedom and curiosity in me as I struggled (and still do) with my mental health and self-worth. I launched @comicsfemme as an exercise in discovery, an enthusiasm to read new and old comics and write about how they connect to the world around us. You can expect longer essays, short articles on Powerful Femmes, weekly comics lists, curated reading lists, and occasional reviews from a feminist perspective. The mission of this project is to have fun while finding and building community in comics. I hope to connect with and learn from long-time comics readers, while also encouraging non-comics readers, especially femmes, to give comics a try and pick up something at their local comic shop. I have a lot of catching up to do, so send me recommendations and feedback via Instagram, twitter, or email. What comics must I read? What are some of your favorite femme characters?