Sleep-away camp, my dad and a flying dog by Judd Winick
I read somewhere that children are able to learn and retain second languages with greater ease when they are really young, like between 3 and 6. In my opinion, kids in general remember and form long term thoughts and tons of their behavior when they are pretty young (Mind you, this is medical opinion of a professional cartoonist, so *ahem* take it for what it is.) I do know for me there’s things I learned or remember from when I was nine that recall better, or had a greater influence on me than stuff that happened last month (although it’s been a really great month). Whether it’s my encyclopedic knowledge of the TV show M*A*S*H, or having a dog, or enjoying reading — all those things happened for me before I was 10. All were incredibly important and formative for me.
I got my love of reading from parents. But they never read books.
My parents were avid readers of newspapers and magazines. And I mean a lot of them. We got 3 or 4 daily papers to the house, and the magazine stacks were always knee high. I always saw them reading. I know that made an impression on me.
As a kid, I read a lot too. But, like my folks, not books. I didn’t read a book for pleasure until I was maybe 13 (that was THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. Which I only read because I loved the movie and I loved Robin Williams. I did think the book was amazing, too.)
My reading list was daily comic strips, cartoon collections, and super hero comics. To be honest, I had a pretty big vocabulary, read above grade level, and wrote well. I didn’t suffer from lack of prose books in my diet. I owed that to my folks. I think watching them read showed me I should do the same.
It was my dad you got me hooked on comics. He read comics as a kid, not as an adult, so he was a former old school fanboy. In the summer of 1979 I went off to sleepaway camp (my first and last time doing it). Every week a fat manila envelope would show up from my dad filled with superhero comic books. In looking back I can tell that my dad was just turning the spinner rack and grabbing the books that looked good to him. But he always grabbed me SUPERMAN (Captain Marvel and Superman being his favorite as a kid.) This little care package became a ritual. I can still remember tearing open the mailer and having those books pour out.
These were the earliest stories that I read that stuck with me. In particular, he got me ACTION COMICS #500. A special “super-sized” issue, it was the longest, biggest comic I ever saw. In it, Metropolis was opening the Superman Museum. Supes was giving the press, and his friends a tour through it on opening day. He would talk and reflect on his life, sometimes internally just for the reader, as he walked through images and moments in his life. It was the biography of Superman.
Only in hindsight did I realize how much of an impact this one story that my Dad bought had. It was the first time I ever saw a character explored. The first time I got some insight into who a fictional character was. I was really struck how Superman talked about his dog Krypto. This was Superman’s pet from his alien world of Krypton who shared the same powers he had . Superman talked about, “The loneliness that comes from thinking that you’re only one of your kind in the entire universe.”
Krypto knew what it felt like when bullets bounced off your flesh, and when flying through the air, “…the feeling of the wind in your face — in a way that no one else in the world can feel it.”
I was just a little boy reading about Superman, but something about it moved me. I never could have put words to it then, but it was melancholy. Sad and beautiful.
Kyrpto made Superman feel less alone.
I can honestly say that 35 years later a single page in a comic book effected me for the rest of my life.
There are things that go into our emotional hard drives. Like watching your parents read. Like feeling the weight of a package of comics in your hands that arrived in the mail. And yeah, like the fact Superman loved his flying dog.