By the time I finished middle school, my enthusiasm for comics was waning a little. I let my Thor subscription lapse because I wanted my money for other things like trips to the mall and late-night bowling and other social activities. I'd also read pretty much everything my dad owned, some of it multiple times. So even though I still loved comics in my heart, I wasn't reading them much anymore since no new ones were crossing my path. Then as a middle school graduation present, my dad bought me a TPB collection of Watchmen, and it briefly rekindled my passion.
I say "briefly" because I didn't get seriously back into comics for years after reading Watchmen, but while I was reading it (and then reading it a second and third time) that summer, it felt like going back to age five and discovering comicbooks for the first time again. I'd read some "mature audiences" stuff prior to this, but nothing as intense, brutal, adult, and ambitious as Watchmen. It blew my mind, and it made me rethink superheroes from the ground up. Were they an inherently flawed, dangerous, reckless idea? Were they too outdated to be realistically applied to the modern world without corrupting them? I'd never thought to question the core awesomeness of the superhero concept, so Watchmen was, in some ways, a challenge to everything I thought I knew and believed about comics. But it was also just an insanely well-written and gorgeous book, worth all the hours of study I gave it and many, many more.
At the time, nobody else I knew (other than, obviously, my dad) had read or even heard of Watchmen, because my friends were all 13 and none of them much cared about comicbooks anyway. So it wasn't until college that I really figured out how typical and universal my response to Watchmen had been. It is the go-to example for grown-up superhero stories, and such an influential piece of work that it's still being copied and ripped off, overtly and discreetly, all across the industry. It changed the way the whole world looked at superheroes, caused us all to ask questions about them that weren't being asked much before. I just wasn't aware of that when I went through my own experience with the book. It doesn't detract from my first summer with Watchmen to know now how common my feelings about it were. I've read it many times since then, including when the dumb movie came out, so I've been able to appreciate it as both a naive child and an adult who recognizes its historical significance. Its real importance in my own life, though, is that it kept me from walking away from or forgetting about comics completely during my lull in high school. I continued to read things here and there—Maus, a Thor omnibus my dad sent me when I was abroad for a year, the occasional random Knights of the Dinner Table issue—but for the most part I gave up on serious comicbook fandom until partway through college. And the first small step I took toward getting back into it was reading Sandman my freshman year.
Like Watchmen, I had the usual response to Sandman, meaning it totally rocked my world and I thought Neil Gaiman was the second coming. A guy on my floor freshman year let me borrow all of his trades of the series, and he and I and his roommate would spend long stoned hours talking about each and every storyline, the brilliance of the series as a whole, and the awesomeness of comics in general. We were also all creative writing majors, so the things Gaiman says about storytelling in Sandman, and the incredible feats of structure and characterization he pulled off within it, were practically arousing to our young, somewhat pretentious, overly-analytical minds. And for me specifically, Sandman was a strong reminder of why I fell so in love with longform narratives in the first place. That is a comic that pays off its readers for their devotion and attention, all throughout and especially in its closing few arcs where everything comes together. I had the itch back, the desire for more of the kinds of stories only comics can tell, the sprawling, slow-burning epics full of dazzling visuals, punctuated by smaller, self-contained single issues. Sandman had all of that in abundance, and showed me what I'd chosen to miss out on for the past four years or so.
I still didn't become a real collector again for another couple of years, which I'll get into next time, but comics have been at least part of my regular reading diet ever since I first laid eyes on the first page of the first issue of Sandman.
Tomorrow: I get all the way, wholeheartedly, and eventually obsessively back into comicbook collecting.