Friday, February 03, 2006

Plan B

So there I was, eighteen and in art school, all fresh-faced (or as fresh-faced as you can be with a beard) and ready to learn. I was, I’d been assured many times, at the cusp of adulthood, and this was the point where I knew that I’d had to put away such childish things as comic books and comic book culture and focus on my studies and my future. Mark Waid was to be replaced by Paul Klee, and my evenings and my money were to be spent in pursuit of a higher education that society would embrace. My ambitions were set, my execution was ready.

It was the first exam of the season, towards the end of the (calendar) year. The exam was being held in the lecture hall, so we were all sat in this massive amphitheater and silently panicking to ourselves about all of the things that we’d managed to entirely ignore in the three months of classes up until that point about all of the great painters and what they did when and what that all meant. The questions for the exam were to be projected onto the screen, and then we’d write our answers in an allotted time before the next question would be projected, and we’d have to move on. Considering how laid back the rest of our art history classes had been – Think friendly old man talking about his childhood and then occasionally remembering that he should probably mention an artist at some point – this all seemed incredibly high-pressure, and it was obvious from the fumbling of pens and paper that I wasn’t the only one thinking that.

Our lecturer stepped onto the podium, and after a few words of good luck, he switched the projector on and turned the lights down low. And that’s when I remembered: My mind is wired wrong.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had this thought; in fact, it was a perennial when it came to exams, all the way back to High School, when the mere thought of math or physics exams was enough to reduce me to a shivering mass of muscle, sweat and fear. The problem was always the same, and the problem was always this: No matter how hard I study for something, no matter how hard I try and cram my brain full of the information that I need to remember, when I actually have to have access to it, my brain will only offer up useless comic-related trivia.

I was sitting there in the art history exam, desperately trying to remember the details of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, and all I could visualize were old Spider-Man covers. I have the vague memory of what the Gericault painting looked like – There was a raft, and it was on stormy waters, and the raft was falling apart and the people on there looked kind of ragged – but it was nowhere near as clear in my mind as that first cover where Spider-Man was wearing his black costume, with the pose recalling Amazing Fantasy #15, even as the colors seemed more contemporary and vibrant (There was a red sky, I seem to remember, and my mind at the time started wandering even further, wondering if the red sky was a shout out to DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths series, where it was all about the red skies, and then I started thinking about Crisis and that I’d missed that series for the most part but picked up the twelfth issue in a store in Florida on my first trip to America when I was a kid, and the way that that comic had felt like some strange other melodramatic world that made X-Men look deep. This was before I had come to accept my inner DC fanboy, of course). As I sat there, pen in hand and refusing to magically write the answers that I needed, I started to wonder if I’d chosen the wrong career path for myself.

The idea of being a “Comics Professional” is one that’s occurred, I have no doubt, to every single person who reads comics these days. When the market shrinks to the size that it is now, I have a depressed faith in the idea that everyone who makes the Wednesday afternoon trek to the store to pick up that week’s new releases has either hopes that they will one day be discovered and given the keys to either DC or Marvel (or perhaps even both), or else they have broken hearts having realized that those dreams will never come true. I’m probably in the second of those categories, despite the occasional glimmer of the first returning whenever my judgement is impaired (Years and years of wanting to break in but not having the courage of my convictions wore away at my desire to be in comics). But when I was eighteen and in an art history exam that felt like it would never end, I felt that the world of fine art and design was clearly not one for me. Given the way that my brain appeared to work, there was only one course of action open to me: I had to be a comics critic.

Back in those pre-internet days, however, there was no easy way to hit that obscure career path. There were the trade magazines, like The Comics Journal or the then-good Comic Buyer’s Guide, sure, but they were American and full of people who knew how to write. There was one British magazine, Comics International, but it too seemed like a closed shop to a boy who was trying to swear off of comics anyway. I briefly considered writing a zine, but realized almost instantly that doing that required more effort and potentially money than I was willing to invest considering I really should be studying for a career and all. And besides, part of the effect that bringing yourself up on superhero comics is that you start to subconsciously believe in two things despite yourself: A simplified morality and a belief in fate managing to pick the right people despite circumstances. In the back of my mind, I felt that, if I was supposed to be discovered and be a comic critic, then it’d happen somehow no matter what.

And so, I sat back in my uncomfortable chair, and tried to clear my mind of all comic thoughts, and think about the Raft of the Medusa. My comic future, whatever it would end up being, was certain no matter what I did, but it could only help to have a back-up plan, which would only happen if I could remember what that damn painting looked like.