A part of the title of this post is borrowed from one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons entitled “HOMR” in which it is discovered that Homer has a crayon lodged in his brain. Upon its removal, Homer is transformed into an intellectual, but then finds himself ostracized by his friends and his community. In great despondency he cries, “Is there no place for the man with the 105 IQ!” Homer is slightly above the average IQ of 100. While I won’t try to maintain that comic reading will beget geniuses, I am convinced that they are at least conducive to the formation of a super-average intelligence.
This post is really a tribute to my childhood and the culture of comics that formed the context from which I was able to learn about and relate to the world. My family is a prolific comic reading clan. It might be especially horrific for some to hear that, yes, we even read comics during meals. In fact, we especially like to read comics at meals and before bed.
My love of comics started long before I could even read. I remember I would lie on my back, comic in hand, with arms outstretched to the ceiling and pretend to read Archie Comics. I only wanted to imitate my five older brothers and older sister. I would scan the pictures and try to figure out what was going on.
Later, when I could read, I didn’t quite understand all of the embedded cleverties (not a word but it should be), but I enjoyed the stories, and the references at least made impressions on me that would later surface. I loved getting my hands on a new comic. We had a local comic store that even had a bona fide comic book guy. It was located on a mini strip mall that neighbored our dogs’ veterinarian, our hair salon, and a treats shop filled with local Hawaiian yummies. When my mom would get a haircut, I would pop on over to the comic store. Fortunately, my comic book guy didn’t mind me just hanging out and reading all of his comics. Now that I think back on it, it amazes me how well he fit the physical stereotype. He had a short tied ponytail of brownish-blonde hair, a little bit of facial hair, a big belly, tight shirt, and cargo shorts. Fortunately, he lacked the attitude and spared me any sarcasm or insults. In fact he didn’t talk to me at all, unless I had a question for him.
In the days before online shopping, the best part of going to the comic store was the odd chance that I would find an issue of Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix the Gaul, or Usagi Yojimbo that we didn’t have yet. Archie Comics could be purchased in the grocery or drug store, and for a long while I was spoiled in that every time we went to the grocery store I would bring home a new issue. Some of the stories in Archie Comics are recycled and my mom taught me to flip through the comic and to select the issues which had the most stories that we hadn’t read yet. As the 7th child, by the time I came around our family had quite the Archie Comic collection going. We had a shelf on which they all belonged, but the comics would always end up scattered around the house. The shelf would become a mess as members of my family would shuffle through the comics looking for the ones that they haven’t read in a while or couldn’t remember the stories, and the comics would resemble a very large stack of unshuffled cards. Eventually the comics would flow off the shelf such that it would be impossible to retrieve any comic from it without spilling them all to the floor. It was often my responsibility to gather all the comics throughout the house and to organize that shelf.
I wasn’t much of a book reader, although my parents and a couple siblings read more than the average bear. My parents also didn’t push us or ever try to accelerate our learning, and I was never very studious until my last years in high school. But, I was always above average in my classes and performed exceptionally well on standardized testing. Although comics are lightweight reading, for me what probably made the difference was that I read at all. But beyond that I feel that there are specific advantages and benefits that, although enjoyable and easy reads, make comics rather heavyweight contenders for a child’s time. Below I share four comics that made significant impressions on my childhood.
1. Archie Comics
Archie Comics were first created in 1941. The best thing about Archie stories are that they are written for the contemporary reader and become dated. These stories are recycled in newer issues, so reading Archie Comics gives a rather broad look into the evolution of American pop culture through the decades. Stories also often place Archie and his gang in historical roles or famous fictional roles that gave me, through hundreds of stories, exposure to key events or people. Some stories are even explicitly educational, such as Ms. Grundy’s class field trip to the Statue of Liberty where I first read the Lady’s inscription, which I will remember forever, and learned of Ellis Island. Other famous lines I’ve learned that come to the top of my head are “Give me liberty or give me death” and “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a ‘darn’ (it could not have been quoted correctly in the comic).” Even common details integrated into the stories helped me to make strong associations with new knowledge later on in my life. For example, the fact that Archie is always breaking Mr. Lodge’s Louis XIV furniture helped me to instantly associate Louis with the lavish Palace of Versailles when it was mentioned in my history class. Archie Comics also helped me to learn rather advanced vocabulary or idioms for an elementary schooler.
2. Calvin and Hobbes
I have to admit that it was a long time before I really understood or appreciated Bill Watterson’s tremendous wit or psychological perception. I think a lot of people have a lot more experience with Calvin and Hobbes and that the intellectual content and benefit are obvious, so I don’t feel the need to go much into that. For me as a child, Calvin and Hobbes was really about capturing all the magic and imagination of childhood. Although, for the first time, it has occurred to me that maybe the comic among other things was responsible for my never believing in Santa Claus (Calvin believed in Santa but it was really obvious who put presents under the tree). I really related to Calvin in that I spent a lot of time playing by myself and making up stories and I would rant to my dogs whenever I was sad or upset. I think that the ideas contained in Calvin and Hobbes, though not always understood, were intellectually stimulating to my childish mind. In fact, when I was about 6 or 7 or so, I did something not unlike what Calvin would have done. On Christmas Eve, I pretended to go to sleep but stayed up until everyone else went to bed. I snuck into the hall and walked back and forth lightly ringing sleigh bells. In the morning, I naïvely asked whether anyone else had heard Santa come the night before. Apparently, whether they were humoring me or whether thy heard the bells, they did and I felt very pleased with myself.
Asterix the Gaul is a French comic written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. I hope that most people would be familiar with it, but I expect that they are probably not as I recently saw something on the internet of Asterix comics as being something of an identifier of hipsters, and though I’m still not quite sure what a hipster is, what I do know is that they love the obscure. For new American readers, the humor may come off as eccentric. The stories take many historical liberties and are highly exaggerated, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that I learned or trust much of European history from the comics. But I feel that the priorities and attitudes that create the cultures of the Gauls, Romans, Brits, Goths and other peoples highlighted in the stories are accurate. Actually, the more I learn about European culture, the more I realize how relevant Asterix is. While Archie Comics helped this Hawaii girl learn about mainstream American culture, Asterix opened a window into European culture.
4. Usagi Yojimbo
Usagi Yojimbo is a comic by Stan Sakai about a samurai rabbit. As a Japanese American, with an emphasis on the American, Usagi comics were the most consistent source of information about my Japanese heritage in my childhood. Sakai, also a Japanese American, puts a heavy emphasis on historical research and thoroughly integrates historical events and Japanese folklore into his stories. Japanese class order and occupations, changing seasons and their accompanying cultural implications, and national and personal conflicts help to create a rich world for the wandering samurai. My family mainly bought the large editions composed of several Usagi comics in series. Each edition ended with a historical note by Sakai explaining the real events that inspired his stories. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Usagi Yojimbo proved to be an instrumental avenue to getting in touch with my ethnic heritage.
5. The Simpsons
Although not a comic, I would like to end with the long-running cartoon series The Simpsons, which I feel has also helped my intellectual development as a child. Nowadays, I really only read the above comics when I go home, but I watch The Simpsons on almost a daily basis. Although some would restrict viewing from young children, I have watched The Simpsons from the age of 7. What first attracted me to The Simpsons was the character of Lisa Simpson: precocious, jazz-playing, environment-loving, moral-championing 8-year-old little girl. I wanted to be exactly like Lisa. When I was in the 6th grade and in band, the first instrument I tried was the saxophone. Lisa is really the one who planted in my mind that it was possible and cool to be young, smart, and a girl. She made me believe that a little girl could make a difference.
For those who question the appropriateness of The Simpsons’ content for a child (and I respect your right to do so), I can say, as one who believes in unadulterated children’s minds as much as the next person, that the semi-“adult” content I understand now was completely irrelevant and insignificant to me as a child. But what was valuable to me was exposure to great wit and to an innumerable amount of references to literature, film, music, and historical and cultural events. In fact, the breadth of coverage is so large that I believe every university course could benefit from a clip of The Simpsons. The thing I love best about The Simpsons is that I can learn or get something new every time I watch an episode.
Times have certainly changed from a time when comics and cartoons were treated as unintelligent drivel or merely bad art. But for me, their impact on and significance in my childhood go beyond their being an acceptable form of entertainment. Much of what I learned of the world outside of Hawaii and my experiences were provided to me in a way that was enjoyable and most of all unintentional. To me, that is the beauty of the comic.