There are thousands of comic books bagged and boarded and meticulously filed in longboxes in my closet. In grad school, I studied comics from an academic perspective and spent a semester as the editorial intern for the X-Men department at Marvel. A lot of what I write—be it nonfiction or middle-grade novels—has to do with superheroes.
All this really comes down to one thing: I’m a comic book nerd. I know comics. I’m an adult who has given an awful lot of thought to the ramifications of Peter Parker’s marriage in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, or what Northstar’s uniform change in Alpha Flight #104 means for his character. And I’ve thought a lot about how the countless hours I spent sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by issues of X-Men and Avengers as a kid shaped who I am today.
I can say without a doubt that I’m indebted to comics and graphic novels because they turned me into a reader and a writer. Comics made me imagine.
I’m not just talking about daydreaming in class about what it would be like to shoot lasers from my eyes (though there was plenty of that going on). It started much subtler than that, before I could even read. I’m not sure why, but I had a few old Swamp Thing in my toybox when I was really young—these weird combinations of words and art on flimsy newsprint that were completely unlike any of my picture books. I couldn’t read them, but I’d look at them all the time, ignoring the speech bubbles and captions and making up my own stories. Sometimes Swamp Thing was a hero. More often, given his creepy appearance, he was a villain. Thinking about those comics now, I can remember some of the panels perfectly, but I couldn’t tell you what the stories were. Or, more precisely, which of the stories were mine, and which were the writer’s.
A few years later, after I’d learned to read, I bought my first comic book: X-Men Vol. 2 #22, July 1993. I chose it because I really liked the X-Men cartoon, not realizing I was jumping into the middle of decades of backstory. I probably read that comic cover-to-cover ten times after bringing it home. I had no idea what was going on—something about ninjas and implanted memories—but I was enthralled by the action and art. Understanding the plot would come later. All I knew for sure was that I wanted more.
I quickly became obsessed. All my allowance went to buying comics. The month-long wait between new issues was excruciating, especially since superhero comics love to end on cliffhangers, so to pass the time I started writing stories. At first they were just a few paragraphs long, describing what I wanted to happen in the next issue. Eventually, they were a several scribbled pages of me fighting alongside my heroes, or new characters altogether. I never thought of this as anything related to reading or writing or learning—it was just an extension of my love for the characters and their adventures. I know several other comic junkies who remember doing the same thing, spending their free time creating elaborate fan fictions, sometimes sharing them on the playground. We were doing the sort of creative writing assignments without even realizing it.
Now, almost two decades later, I’m basically doing the same thing—writing the story that I want to read, or the one I think I would have wanted to read as a kid. The process has gotten more complicated, but the base is still there. I’m just imagining.
There is also a different, subconscious way comics force readers of any age to use their imaginations. The space between two panels on a page is the “gutter,” which usually represents unseen action or a passage of time. It’s where your brain fills in the story. You didn’t actually see Wolverine take out all the bad guys, but because they’re all on the ground in the panel after they attacked him, you know that’s what happened. If the comic is successful, you can see the scene play out in your head and not even realize you’re doing it. Sometimes when I reread comics I haven’t touched in years, I’m surprised to find that a panel I vividly remember isn’t there. A hero’s demise is less graphic than I thought it was, or plays out in silhouettes, or is never really shown except in reaction shots of other characters. It happened in the gutters, off the page, offstage. The same thing happens in novels, only “imagining what happens in the gutters” becomes “reading between the lines,” and comics made me better at doing that.
That’s not the only way comics helped me become a better reader in general. Hungry for more superheroes, I devoured the short, kid-friendly novelizations of famous comic book storylines that Marvel used to put out. When I finished all of those, I started looking for books that read like superhero comics, stories rich in fantasy and battles between good and evil. From there, I moved on to all types of literature. I filled up the time between issues of X-Men with more and more words, and my bookshelves became a beautiful mess of novels, nonfiction, and superpowers. (They still look like that today.)
Imagining, creating my own story, learning to wonder what happens outside of the text and images I’m given—that’s what reading comics helped to open up for me. To create an entire world out of twenty-four paneled pages a month. Obviously, the superhero comics I grew up on aren’t for every taste or age group: I use them only as an example of my personal experience. There are great middle grade and children’s comics and graphic novels out there (many talked about by the Nerdy Book Club on a regular basis), and these same ideas apply to them. Every time I see a teacher or librarian or parent talking about recommending one of these books to a kid, part of me gets so excited. Not just because I love comics and am glad to see the medium passed on to a new generation, but because there’s a chance that kid is going to have a whole new world opened up for them. And I hope that they find it to be as rewarding as I have.
Jeramey Kraatz has wanted superpowers ever since he opened his first comic book as a kid. He’s a graduate of Texas Christian University and the MFA writing program at Columbia University. His debut middle-grade novel is The Cloak Society, out October 2nd, 2012 from Harper. Jeramey lives in Texas, where he works in the animation industry. You can find him at http://www.jerameykraatz.com, or on twitter @jerameykraatz.