Nothing can really do what they can. No other art form.
I can hardly recall a time in my life when comics weren't present. At a very early age, perhaps even before I could read, my parents would set aside the funny pages of the newspaper for me every day. I'd look forward most to the Sunday paper, which had the biggest section of comics, and in full color, which I'd pore over and eagerly try to decipher.
I specifically remember loving Gary Larson's The Far Side, which managed to pack so much profundity into one understated and idiosyncratic panel. Calvin and Hobbes was also an early favorite. I loved Marmaduke and was fascinated with the seemingly impenetrable sagas of Mark Trail and Prince Valiant. Out of my love of the Sunday funnies grew a natural interest in comic books. I started early, buying the comics from the most readily available source for a child: the supermarket. I'd go with my mom to buy groceries, but instead would end up devouring Archie digests, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and the occasional issue of Richie Rich.
One day, bored in the waiting room at a car-repair shop, I found a copy of something called MAD magazine buried underneath old sticky copies of TIME and PEOPLE. I couldn't fully understand the subtle and brilliant humor at 7 years old, but I also couldn't put it down. I felt like somehow the entire secret to life was encoded in its amazing pages. Even just Al Jaffee's back cover fold-in was enough to change my imagination forever.
And that was only the beginning.
Soon, I'd discovered a store in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan called Dave's Comics, which took up the entire second floor of a corner building on State Street, across from the University of Michigan "Diag"—an area with lots of hippies and counter-culture types, what I like to think was a small Midwestern version of Haight Ashbury. After my first virgin venture up the narrow stairway into Dave's world, there was seldom a summer day I wouldn't ride my bike to the store and spend hours sifting through their endless rectangular white cardboard boxes of comics. Comic books really had their hooks in me in a way I wouldn't fully recognize until years later, when death metal would do the same.
Comics illustrate life in a way that actually matches what being alive feels like.
Dave's, to me, was a whole new universe. I didn't know there were so many comic books, and so many people devoted to them. The fact that an entire store could stay open by stocking thousands and thousands of comics blew my mind.
And then I discovered the "Adults Only" section of the store.
I naturally assumed it was like the "Adults Only" section of our local video rental place, or our local Spencer's Gift shop—that these were just sex-themed or pornographic comics. Of course, I was instantly determined to get a glimpse of this off-limits material.
I'd walk by and peer at the half obscured titles, with only the tops of the comic sticking out from behind the shelf's wooden panel, intended to censor the "obscene" cover art. I was careful not to linger too long, for fear of being banned from the store I loved so much. To my surprise, most of the titles didn't sound very sexual at all: "Cocaine Comics"; "Weirdo Comics"; "Motorbooty"; "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers."
After months of fantasizing about what could possibly be contained in the pages of these comics, I finally convinced my dad to go in and buy one for me. He got me a copy of very thick book-like comic called RAW (with a Gary Panter illustration on the cover). There was so much intense and provocative stuff going on in that issue, it felt more like an art magazine to me, which may have been why my dad was OK buying it for his pre-teen son. It was well above my age range, but I suppose even though I was only 12, he figured I could handle it. And I could... sort of. In addition to the comics inside, there were paintings and illustrations, some of which were highly sexual and extremely intense. I was deeply impacted, in particular, by the work of an artist named Pascal Doury.
When I finally gained access to this forbidden realm, I felt a great rush, the kind you get when you know you're doing something illicit. The rush was so strong that it even had a taste, right by the back of my tongue, where my throat started and my tonsils and epiglottis pulsed. This strange sour taste was accompanied by a deep primal ache on the roof of my mouth. It was a palpable and euphoric moment—crossing a threshold, away from innocence.
From that first issue of RAW, my fascination grew deeper. I started getting into the work of S. Clay Wilson, John Howard, Robert Williams, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Charles Burns, Jim Osborne, Peter Bagge, Bob Burden, and others. I was enthralled by nearly everything I encountered, and each collision with a new artist would in turn lead to finding a whole host of others. Every artist stood alone, with an iconoclastic style and feeling only they could provide. It wasn't only their artwork, but also their ideas that were so compelling. No prior experience of mine, or any extension of my dreams or nightmares, could've fully prepared me for these fantastic, and entirely new creative statements and explorations.
What was most striking about it all was the unique mode of delivery and process. The comics told stories, but they weren't exactly literature. It was definitely art, but it proudly defied classical artistic restrictions. The work was funny, but also dark, scary, unnerving, enlightened. These "adult comics" could do anything they wanted. It was all the best things combined, and yet entirely their own thing.
They were dead on about life, about reality. Reading these comics felt like I was witnessing a nail being hit on the head, over and over again. And then realizing that this nail head was actually my own head. They could present me with the most far out, bizarre perspective, and then illustrate that perspective so compellingly that it became the only one that made any sense.
I like to compare comics to a synthesizer keyboard. When synths first made their way into the culture, people didn't really know what to make of them. They were too new. People thought they were just noise makers, and for the longest time didn't really consider them legitimate musical instruments.
But nothing can really do what a synth can. No other musical instrument. Similarly, nothing can really do what a comic can. No other art form. And, as underground and "adult" comics have proven, when the medium is totally released from any creative or moral restrictions, it's able to explore the entirety of the human experience and illuminate parts of life that are not always so clearly visible to us otherwise.
Comics illustrate life in a way that actually matches what being alive feels like. And that is magical.
Follow Andrew W.K. on Twitter.